General Harriet Tubman (1820–1913): Healing Historical Exploitation

Lisa Betty
21 min readJul 24, 2020

Deconstructing biographies about Harriet Tubman published between 1856 to 1886 and restoring the narrative with the honor she deserves.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken by Harvey Lindsley in Auburn, N.Y. between 1871 and 1876?, printed between 1895 and 1910 — Library of Congress, Washington DC.

I started writing this piece as a response to the “haters”. Those who have willfully misrepresented Harriet Tubman’s story (the 2019 Harriet film — 60% fiction), the political wannabes that use her sacred name in vain, and the countless history textbooks that limited her story to a simple byline, “Harriet Tubman freed slaves”. She is one of the most well-known figures of the U.S. antebellum period, but her story is inundated with mythology and misconceptions about slavery. Tubman stood about five feet tall. She was a disabled formerly enslaved Black woman without the ability to read and write.[i] There is no mystery to Tubman’s story, however, the power of her liberatory narrative is continuously silenced and repressed.

The popular culture dominated byline “Harriet Tubman freed slaves”, no matter how grandiose, limits Tubman’s life and impact to solely the period of U.S. chattel slavery shrouding six decades of contributions. Additionally, the “how”, “who”, “where”, and even “why”, are omitted from Tubman’s temporally abrupt and unclear popular cultural narrative.

This popular narration obscures the historical traditions of maroonage, self-emancipation, resistance, and community that allowed generations of Black people to fight against and survive within the confines of an expanding system of chattel slavery in the United States and western hemisphere as a whole.

Underground Railroad (Wikipedia Public Domain)

In North America, there were a variety of intricate and simple iterations of the Underground Railroad. These networks and acts of resistance answer the question of “how” Tubman successfully escaped bondage in 1850. She was one of the 259 persons that successfully escaped Maryland that year, and in 1852 she returned to help other Black community members.[ii]

Answering the “who” and “where”, Tubman rescued family members and a network of people she knew from the eastern shore of Maryland, a slave state situated at the border of the Mason Dixon line…

Lisa Betty

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.