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

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.
Underground Railroad (Wikipedia Public Domain)
Quilt depicting Harriet Tubman’s work as a conductor and community member she helped to self-liberate. Quilts were used as a communication tool for the Underground Railroad, and Tubman was an avid quilter.

Araminta “Minty” Ross

Photo was taken in the 1860s, and is the youngest photo many can find of Tubman.
Newspaper notice was taken out by Eliza Ann Brodess offering a $300 reward (equivalent to $9,000 today) for the capture of “Minty” (Harriet Tubman) and her brothers Henry and Ben in October 1849.

Harriet Tubman: Slavery and Self-Emancipation

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850 during the period of U.S. slavery, buttressed the system of searching for, detaining, retrieving and returning “runaway slaves” — self-emancipated black people or fugitives from chattel slavery — from free states to slave states.

Notice informing Black community members in Boston to avoid conversing with the police as they have been empowered as “kidnappers and slave catchers“ by local government officials due to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Boston, April 1851
Benjamin Drew’s The Refugee: or North-Side View of Slavery (1856)

I grew up like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang — one of them left two children. We were always uneasy. Now I’ve been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. I have no opportunity to see my friends in my native land. We would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free there as we are here. I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell, if he could.[xiii]

The first-hand account of Tubman and her community contradicts the notion of contentment in slavery. The book exposes the inhumanity of the domestic trade that indiscriminately separated families sending them deep south and to new territories to join brutal “chain gains.” Most importantly, Tubman describes the United States as “our native land” showing a willingness to return to the states but not the “dreadful condition (of) slavery.”

General Harriet Tubman: Civil War

In early 1858, white Abolitionist John Brown traveled to St. Catherines, Canada from Boston to meet with Harriet Tubman and Black community members about his plan to lead an insurrection in the South and establish a new free state for emancipated Black people in the mountains of Virginia and western Maryland.[xv]

John Brown with a small group of twenty-one men on Sunday night, October 16, 1859 commenced his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Combahee River Raid, June 1–2, 1863 led by Harriet Tubman and Col. James Montgomery.
Combahee River Raid, June 1–2, 1863 led by Harriet Tubman and Col. James Montgomery.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman

A few months after the Civil War ended in October 1865, Tubman traveled by train from Philadelphia to New York with a half-fare ticket. The conductor ordered her to the smoking car. When Tubman refused, the conductor and male passengers violently threw her into the smoking car breaking her arm, shoulder, and ribs.[xxxi]

Tubman in 1887 (far left), with her husband Davis (seated, with cane), their adopted daughter Gertie (beside Tubman), Lee Cheney, John “Pop” Alexander, Walter Green, “Blind Aunty” Sarah Parker, and her great-niece Dora Stewart at Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York (Wikipedia Public Domain)
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) by Sarah Bradford.
Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886) by Sarah Bradford.

The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People

Harriet Tubman died in 1913. In addition to contributions during the period of slavery and Civil War, Tubman experienced:

Harriet Tubman, 1911, she lived at The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People by 1911.
Tablet erected in Auburn, NY in her honor.
A monument in South End, Boston, MA in Harriet Tubman’s honor.

Biographies on General Harriet Tubman*

A North-Side View of Slavery (Benjamin Drew, 1855)
“Harriet Tubman,” Commonwealth (Franklin B. Sanborn,1863)
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Sarah Bradford, 1868)
Harriet, The Moses of Her People (Sarah Bradford, 1886)
Harriet Tubman (Earl Conrad, 1943)
Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Jean M. Humez, 2004)
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Catherine Clinton, 2004)
Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman (Kate Clifford Larson, 2004)
Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Milton C. Sernett, 2007)
Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom: A Brief History with Documents (Lois E. Horton, 2013)
Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the Nineteenth Century (Kristen T. Oertel, 2015)
She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman (Erica Armstrong Dunbar, 2019)

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

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