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On The Road To Harriet Tubman

June 2024
10min read

She has become one of the most famous of all American women, but to the biographer she is a tantalizingly elusive quarry

Like all biographers, I search for compelling figures with universal appeal. I seek someone who will keep me awake nights, who will take me on strange detours, who will make me crazy with curiosity. Those very vital questions that form the core of an individual’s experience will engulf and overwhelm, and perhaps even undermine me—as, once again, I take the plunge. I feel lucky indeed to have found such a subject in Harriet Tubman.

She is a character familiar to twenty-first-century school-children, but a name all too absent from the annals of the American academy. Born into slavery in the third decade of the nineteenth century, Harriet Tubman lived into the second decade of the twentieth. She emancipated herself by running away from her Maryland owner in 1849, and she joined the growing cadre of black freedom fighters in the North. Committed to the battle against slavery, she took on the dangerous role of rescuing others and conducted hundreds of fugitives to freedom along networks established by the Underground Railroad. During the 1850s she became a beloved figure among abolitionists, revered as “Moses” within antislavery circles.

After the Civil War began—in a sense moving her “underground” struggle aboveground—Tubman joined with Federal forces, working behind enemy lines as a spy and scout. (These clandestine activities finally won her a pension of $20 after 30 years of petitions to Congress.) She spent the post-war years in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and by the 1870s was being described in local papers as a philanthropist. After sheltering the needy in her own household for decades, she was finally able to open a charitable home for blacks in her adopted hometown of Auburn. She was outspoken on behalf of women’s suffrage and other movements for social justice at the turn of the century. When she died in 1913, Booker T. Washington and other race leaders hailed her contributions and sacrifices.

Writing a biography of Tubman has been both a joy and a challenge. A joy, in that her life is so full of inspirational material, and a challenge because her status as a folk heroine in many ways obscures how little we can really document about it. Although she is often celebrated as a heroine of the Underground Railroad, there is hardly any mention in Civil War literature of her extraordinary efforts during the conflict, when missions took her as far south as Fernandina, Florida.

Because Tubman remained illiterate, there are only a few dictated letters and no diaries.

Because Tubman remained illiterate all her life, there are only a few dictated letters and no diaries on which to draw. Yet during the past half-century she has been the subject of first a trickle and then a flood of children’s literature, 37 books since 1990 alone, and her image adorns dozens of reference-book covers, logos, and Web sites. However, I discovered when writing an encyclopedia article on Tubman in 1992, only a handful of articles had been published about her, and a single adult biography—in 1943. And so began my quest.

Laudatory obituaries appeared widely following her death on March 10, 1913. Yet, like that of many born into slavery, her birth date remains unknown. I have come to believe that the two sworn statements she submitted to the United States government when applying for a widow’s pension are the most accurate estimate of her age: Tubman was likely born in 1825.

SCHOLARS NATURALLY SEEK THE EXACT DATE OF HER birth. At least a birth year would be especially helpful to those involved in the excavation of the former plantation site that has been identified as Harriet Tubman’s birthplace, a remote stretch of farmstead in Bucktown, a few miles from Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The progress on this archeological dig, funded by the state of Maryland, has been painfully slow, as a hardy team of scholars, among them Bonnie Ryan of Syracuse University and John Seidel of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, comb the terrain with a gang of eager students summer after summer.

During the early years of my research, I sought traces of Tubman and her family in newspapers, in public records, in the archives—all the usual places where we historians seek out clues. But the Maryland State archivists Chris Haley and Rocky Rockefeller prodded me to expand my searches beyond microfilm and manuscripts. They insisted I meet the people who are engaged in the preservation of Tubman’s historical legacy, and this proved advice for which I remain grateful.

During my pursuit I have encountered so many generous and dedicated researchers, like the men and women of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Learning Center in Cambridge, Maryland, who supervise pilgrimages and tours, as well as the annual Harriet Tubman Day celebrations (around March 10). The local historian John Creighton believes his mission must focus on his home region of the Eastern Shore, although of course he recognizes Tubman as a figure of national importance. Tourism is fine, he says, but “that’s not my priority. My focus is on community history: to have local community members filling in the gaps of our history and genealogy.” Creighton’s own journey began when, as a high school history teacher, he visited the Schomburg Center, the great repository of African-American history in New York City. He’d gone there eager to learn more about “Harriet Tubman and other self-liberators , a term I prefer to fugitive slaves .” Today Creighton’s research takes into account oral histories from descendants of “Bucktown families who know the fields and waterways of the country.” He stresses that we all are indebted to those men and women who have been carrying the torch for years.

The women include Vivian Abdur-Rahim of Wilmington, Delaware, who recently spoke at a Washington, D.C., conference co-sponsored by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is due to open in Cincinnati this summer. Abdur-Rahim believes that obligations connected with Harriet Tubman renew her. She honors Tubman’s legacy wherever it takes her, as when she boarded a bus to Canada to be present for the dedication of a marker at a church in St. Catharines, Ontario, where Tubman once lived and worshiped.

When I was touring the Eastern Shore with the researchers Patricia Guida and J.O.K. Walsh, I felt the powerful influence of place. My guides were passionate about finding the actual ground from which Harriet set out on her road to freedom. As we tramped over the fields once owned by Dr. Anthony Thompson, one of Harriet’s masters, Walsh spoke excitedly about his work documenting structures related to Tubman and the larger Underground Railroad network. He is head of both the Caroline County Historical Society and the nonprofit Caroline Economic Development Corporation because “creating tourism using heritage sites is a seamless, although challenging, vocation.” Walsh says that when he began his historical research, he found out just “how much undiscovered information is still out there on Harriet Tubman.”

This was reinforced in a most unexpected way through an extraordinary discovery made by a Maryland native named Jay Meredith. In 1997 Meredith moved his family to Bucktown, to settle on property where his slaveholding ancestors had once lived. He hoped to create a tourist site at the refurbished Bucktown Village Store when he established the nonprofit Bucktown Village Foundation to protect and restore local heritage. This store was the place where, as a young slave, Harriet Tubman once ran ahead to warn a fellow fieldworker about a pursuing overseer. Harriet came between the enraged overseer and the fleeing slave and was felled by an iron weight. The store is one of relatively few documented sites from Harriet’s years in Maryland.

Asked if this enterprise is an attempt to make up for his family’s role in slavery, Jay Meredith counters that Bucktown’s slaveholding past is “my heritage and part of history. You can’t hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist.” Instead, he and his wife, Susan, and their three children hope tours reflecting Tubman’s life and the Underground Railroad will not only illuminate neglected aspects of Maryland’s past but help bridge the color line within their own community.


In the early spring of 2003 Meredith heard that the heirs of a family that had lived for generations in the same Eastern Shore house were filling up a dumpster. He asked if he might take a look at what was being thrown out; granted permission, he and his wife donned old clothes and dug in. To their amazement, the couple unearthed a paper containing an advertisement for the runaway Tubman, the first published piece of evidence documenting her flight and something that had always eluded scholars and archivists.

To hear Vivian Abdur-Rahim testify, to hear John Creighton meditate and J.O.K. Walsh speculate, to visit the Bucktown Village Store—all this was deeply moving to a scholar who was trying to cross boundaries, and the memories kept me company while I faced a blank computer screen.

IT WAS EASY TO FILL PAGES WITH TRIBUTES TO TUBMAN’S heroism and humility, but she was more fascinating because of her idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. She was generous to a fault—her friend and patron William H. Seward often scolded her for putting the needs of others above her own —and one time a black family who took in Tubman and her party of fugitives for the night was perhaps startled when, preparing to leave the next morning, Harriet peeled off an undergarment to leave behind for her hosts. It was the only thing she had to offer to show her appreciation for safe haven.

She was famously naive. Although during her wartime service she repeatedly outmaneuvered and outfoxed Confederates, in 1873 she nevertheless fell victim to two men who promised gold in exchange for greenbacks. After demanding a clandestine midnight meeting, the confidence men beat Tubman, then bound and gagged her and left her for dead in the woods. (The brutal attack outraged the Auburn citizens, who had become proud and protective of their remarkable neighbor.)

In 1903 Tubman donated her charitable home to the A.M.E. Zion Church, which is still involved in maintaining the facility as a museum and visitors’ center and is now working with preservationists to expand its mandate. Groups hope to restore the actual house in which Tubman lived for most of her adult life on property adjacent to the house museum site.

The Reverend Paul G. Carter and his wife, Christine, maintain a strong commitment to preserving Tubman’s memory, and every year they host busloads of visitors making the pilgrimage to Auburn, several hundred of whom gather in special celebration on Memorial Day weekend. The ceremonies begin at the Fort Hill Cemetery, where Tubman was buried with military honors. Prayers, songs, and responsive readings remind those at this graveside that “Moses” still casts her long shadow.

A somber image of Tubman’s face adorns banners in Auburn’s historic district. The plaque on the Cayuga County Courthouse dedicated in her honor in 1914 reminds visitors that she remains one of the most admired African-Americans of her generation—and a favorite daughter. The town is discussing plans to rename a major thoroughfare in her memory.

A.M.E. Zion congregations sponsor candidates for a Miss Harriet Tubman contest, featured in the annual Memorial Day program. Each contestant contributes a statement. In 2000 15-year-old Ondrea Mack confided: “Harriet Tubman was a leader and an inspiration to her people, and it will be an honor to be crowned in her name. I also would consider myself as a leader and not a follower and a role model to other children.” When she won, this title added to her long list of accomplishments: the National Junior Honor Society, a participant in public-speaking contests, a cheerleader as well as a member of her school’s Junior ROTC. This final attribute may take some by surprise, but Tubman’s military talents were famous during her own day, and her role as a warrior fuels contemporary debate.

A popular nineteenth-century print shows Tubman holding a rifle. The visual link between an elementary school heroine and the weapon has caused consternation among educators, and efforts to turn Tubman into some kind of symbol for current battles over gun control erupt regularly. Tubman not only shouldered a rifle when she served with the Union Army but carried a pistol during her travels along the Underground Railroad. This matter-of-fact circumstance should have very little bearing on contemporary political debates, but, again, Tubman casts a long shadow.

Both the Black Panthers and the adherents of nonviolence came to embrace her.

Legend feeds myth, and certain elements of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s created a renewed wave of interest in Tubman, introduced to a new generation as a founding mother of black revolutionaries. This renown led to her becoming embraced by the Black Panthers on the one hand, revered by adherents of nonviolence on the other.


At such a pinnacle of conflicting symbolism, her popularity elicited controversy. Following the release of the National History Standards in 1994, Tubman’s name was frequently invoked as an example of “flaws” associated with guidelines reflecting inclusion and diversity. After protracted debates in which opponents of the standards hammered away at “revisionism,” Harriet Tubman became a particularly sailing to conservative critics. But even as pundits bickered, she continued to blossom within the popular culture. In 2000 I brought home a Harriet Tubman Adventures in Learning play set, which included a figure that represented Harriet, a fugitive mother with a babe in arms, a cabin and a roadside shelter complete with campfire, a “freedom-sign quilt,” a chicken on a spit, and a bloodhound, sniffing at the ground. I might cringe; children don’t. My son tore into the box, and one of his friends marveled: “Cool, a Harriet Tubman action figure.”

Along my travels I have bought Tubman mugs, T-shirts, stamp pins, a comic book, and have even seen a Harriet Big Brainy baby. However, Harriet Tubman’s legacy is not for children only. She represents hope for those seeking escape today from other forms of brutality. Can it be any surprise that domestic-abuse shelters in the United States invoke her name? That volunteers and professionals honor her bravery by engineering rescues of their own?

Since 2000 the U.S. National Park Service has been evaluating sites associated with Tubman as potential additions to the park system. A movement gathers steam to turn Harriet Tubman Day into a national holiday. Public statuary featuring Tubman is popping up all over, from Boston to Battle Creek. And let a hundred Harriets bloom.

Trying to write about Tubman, in the midst of all the complexities her life presents—especially to a scholar—I often felt my attempts to “capture” her were futile. And as she was one so well practiced in eluding captivity, I have found the struggle frustrating at times. To want to know your subject better than anyone else is a hubris biographers need to abandon; to try to cram every detail discovered into the text to somehow validate your authority also does a disservice. And so I wonder, how can I do justice to such a remarkable figure who has afforded me such a fulfilling biographical challenge. I believe all I can do is to try to tell Tubman’s life by imagining her as listener: knowing she would be raising an eyebrow here and there, and injecting humor, pathos, and double doses of humility. Indeed, she may have been a hero, but she was trying to teach us that we could all become heroes in our own lives. By using her as a sounding board, maybe I have crossed a line—which some of us do—of dialogue with our subjects. But these interior monologues can strike a chord when we stumble on our way—and lead us to a clearing along the tangled path.

Tubman was born into slavery and deprived of the basic human rights we now cherish as a nation. She stood up to the slave power, pushing the nation toward its awful reckoning with destiny. She wanted the Republic to live up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. She encouraged followers: “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.” Those dedicated to promoting her accomplishments know that whether working in the spotlight or scribbling by candlelight (as I was, finishing up in last year’s East Coast blackout), we must heed her example and “keep going.”

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