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 traversing riverways, forests, and swamps.

Although the number of Black people that self-emancipated with Tubman during her thirteen trips to Maryland is limited to about 80 persons,[iii] this number does not include those able to emancipate during her activities in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, or the residual impact of Underground Railroad “conductors” that trained under or were inspired by Tubman to become grassroots abolitionists.

With enslaved Black people asserting personhood and community by becoming “fugitives”, the “why” is tainted in the racial scientific white supremacist logic of Samuel Cartwright’s 1851 discovery of “drapetomania,” a mental illness disease attributed to Black people who escaped slavery.[iv]

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.

The “Slave Power” ideology was based on the inhumane characterization of Black people which strengthened the continuation of domestic human trafficking of enslaved people to the deep South and circum-Caribbean. These terrifying circumstances and pressure increased the calculated attempts for self-emancipation to escape the brutal system of chattel slavery personally or communally experienced.[v]

Tubman sought to self-emancipate with her brothers in 1849, after becoming aware of a pending sale to the Deep South. Additionally, the expansion and protection of slavery by U.S. Congress through the Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act amplified the risk and impulse to escape. Simultaneously calcifying networks of activists, advocates, and free and self-emancipated Black communities committed to supporting enslaved Black people self-liberate.

As simplistic versions of Harriet Tubman’s story move seamlessly within basic representations of slavery, her expansive role as a grassroots abolitionist, undocumented person, exiled refugee, borderlands traveler, an antebellum military organizer, nurse and healer, Civil War leader and military veteran, Black liberation activist, women rights activist, and post-emancipation and Great Migration humanitarian becomes shrouded in obscurity.

The following will explore the historical context of Harriet Tubman as the “Moses of her People” and “General Tubman.” In addition to the fluxes of highs and lows implicit in Tubman’s story, the historiographic circumstances surrounding the publications of her biographies from 1856 to 1886 reveal socio-political moments of enslavement, Civil War, and Reconstruction at the base of transforming and dangerous narratives of U.S. slavery and the Civil War.

Araminta “Minty” Ross

Photo was taken in the 1860s, and is the youngest photo many can find of Tubman.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross around 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland in the eastern shore. She and her family were enslaved by the white Pattisons, the Thompsons, the Stewarts, and the Brodesses.

Harriet’s father Ben Ross was manumitted by a provision in Anthony Thompson’s will in 1840, while her mother Harriet and siblings remained enslaved. Recently freed and his family in bondage, Ben possibly continued to labor for the Thompsons, and then he hired himself to the Stewarts.[vi]

This demonstrates complexities within the system of chattel slavery, as well as the complex space of the eastern shore of Maryland, where there were intermixtures between free and enslaved Black communities.

In slavery, Tubman suffered brutal and countless abuses as a child and youth. At 6 years old, she labored in swamps securing muskrat traps, she also played domestic and night nurse to a newborn. In both of these roles, Tubman was whipped, beaten, and battered.

As a teen, while helping a fellow enslaved Black man, Tubman was “inadvertently” knocked down by a white enslaver and fell into a coma. From that time, she suffered seizures, visions and blackouts, now diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).

These episodes became a part of the mysticism of Tubman as a figure comparable to Joan of Arc. She connected these occurrences to her relationship with God and spirituality.[vii]

As she became older, Tubman was able to hire out her time and work closely with her father logging with the Stewart family. Harriet married John Tubman, a free Black man in 1844.[viii]

Upon hearing that she may be sold down South, in September 1849, Harriet attempted to escape with her two brothers, but they were not successful. Eliza Ann Brodess arranged a 300.00 dollar (equivalent of 9,000.00 dollars) reward for their capture.[ix]

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.

In addition to Tubman’s family losing two sisters to the domestic human trafficking of enslaved Black people, instead of manumitting enslaved people (as Tubman’s father and husband were), it was a common practice for enslavers to legally and illegally sell Black men, women, and children down south to growing cotton and sugar plantations in Texas and Louisiana — kidnappings were also a common occurrence in the North and South.[x] Family separation was the greatest fear during this period.

The winter of 1849/1850, Tubman left on her own (as her husband refused to leave with her) and she successfully made it Philadelphia with the help of the Underground Railroad network of free Black communities, Quakers, and other white abolitionists.

As she was “Minty Ross” in the eastern shore, she changed her name to “Harriet (her mother’s first name) Tubman (her husband’s last name)” upon freedom.

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.

Fugitives from chattel slavery were undocumented, as they did not have the coveted “freedom papers” or were not manumitted with legal channels. The law also provided financial resources to state and local politicians, newly formed police forces, and made the public culpable for harboring fugitives or not physically helping in the pursuit of fugitives.

Additionally, the law attempted to dismantle the interracial network of antislavery advocates and abolitionist activists of the Underground Railroad, lead by luminaries such as William Still, Sojourner Truth, David Ruggles, Sarah Parker Redmond — which provide resources once self-emancipated and clandestine routes to free states. Black and abolitionist communities in northern free states were outraged and protested the law.

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

They worked to create safe spaces for self-emancipated exiled communities — sanctuary cities, towns, neighborhoods, and/or block. These networks fought against U.S. Marshals, citizen “slave catchers,” and newly formed local police forces that were granted the authority and financial incentives to terrorize Black communities.

The 1850 law demonstrates the parallels and systemic alignment of borders, systemic and financial incentives for criminalizing black bodies, and activism around protecting exiled/refugee communities. Harriet Tubman and growing communities of self-emancipated Black people were undocumented people, exiles, and refugees fleeing southern slave states and then the U.S. for Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean for “freedom”.

As the local enactment of the law increased, self-emancipated Black people looked to UGRR organizations for support. Tubman participated in abolitionist and refugee organizations, such as the Fugitive Aid Society, supporting the immediate transition of self-emancipated Black people from enslavement to freedom.

Upon hearing about the pending sales of family and friends from Maryland to the deep South, she began to venture to the eastern shore and surrounding areas as an Underground Railroad “conductor” moving “cargo” to communities in upstate New York and then St. Catharines, Canada. As a conductor, Tubman was notorious for her disguises, omniscient spirituality, geographic knowledge of swamp and backwoods terrain, mathematical and scientific cosmological knowledge, and outright bravery.

She gained an impressive reputation as an emancipator known as “Moses” by the Black communities in Mid-Atlantic region, the north, and Canada. Although her parents, Ben and Rit Ross, were manumitted, Harriet’s activities in the UGRR put them at risk under the Fugitive Slave Law. She rescued her parents from Maryland to Canada. In addition to working as a domestic, she began to fundraise giving speeches on the abolitionist circuits for her trips south. Among enslavers, Tubman also held a reputation, and the accumulation of a $12,000 reward became available for her capture.

Benjamin Drew’s The Refugee: or North-Side View of Slavery (1856)

Tubman’s narrative was first published as a part of an accumulation of edited interviews by Benjamin Drew in The Refugee: or North-Side View of Slavery.

Published in 1856, Drew’s piece countered George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South; or, the Failure of Free Society and Reverend Nehemiah Adams’s A Southside View of Slavery. In vogue with Samuel Cartwright’s “drapetomania” logic, Fitzhugh and Adams both argued that slavery was beneficial and less oppressive than the northern wage-labor system.[xi]

Both claimed that enslaved Black people were content in the South, directly challenging Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Fitzhugh and Adams challenge northern abolitionists’ claims about the horrors of slavery as only emotional and without merit.[xii] Through interviews with Canadian refugees, such as Tubman and her family members, Drew sought to buttress the fictive narrative of slavery by Stowe and autobiographic slave narratives with anecdotes from an entire self-emancipated community. In Drew’s interview with Tubman, she recounts:

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.”

Drew’s title describes self-emancipated communities as “refugees,” directly supporting the notion of a U.S. homeland. Recent biographer Kate Clifford Larson notes that although Tubman was a part of the clandestine UGRR network, she chose to be known by her real name for the book, Harriet Tubman.[xiv]

In addition to the power of her short contribution, Drew’s narrative depicts the intense conflict between abolitionists and proslavery segments adding to the impending crisis that officially initiated the Civil War.

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]

Prominent abolitionists and Underground Railroad operators Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and Jermain W. Loguen advised Brown to connect with Tubman, who had just left Boston after fundraising and speaking engagements. Brown anticipated that her authority on the communication and transport lines on the Underground Railroad would provide an advantage for the assault on Harpers Ferry.[xvi]

In addition to sharing his plans and consulting on the draft constitution for a provisional U.S. government with Douglass, Brown visited with his core group of activists — the Secret Six (Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns) — who knew about Brown’s plans for an armed raid and provided funds and connections. [xvii]

In a letter to his son the next day, Brown described that his meeting with Tubman went beyond his expectations. [xviii] Referring to her as “General,” he wrote that she was “the most of a man…that I ever met with.”[xix]

With the raid in planning, Tubman returned to Boston where she met with Franklin B. Sanborn, a well-known abolitionist who was a supporter and confidant of Brown and a member of Brown’s Secret Six. Sanborn would become one of Tubman’s most staunch and reliable supporters, writing the first, and — what recent biographer Catherine Clinton notes as perhaps the most accurate biography of Tubman’s early life.[xx]

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.

Incapacitated by illness in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the fall of 1859, Tubman was unable to join Brown in the attack at Harpers Ferry.[xxi] Brown commenced his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry with a small group of twenty-one men on Sunday night, October 16, 1859. Two of those men were from Tubman’s community in St. Catherine, Canada. By Tuesday, Robert E. Lee and a party of U.S. Marines had forced them to retreat and the raid was suppressed.[xxii]

Sanborn, Douglass and other abolitionists fled to Canada in fear of being arrested and carried off to Virginia for trial.[xxiii] Tubman was devastated by the loss of Brown, who she admired for his valiant battle against the Slave Power. Among many moments of conflict, Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry made him a martyr and added to the clash that soon initiated South Carolinian secession and U.S. Civil War.

Combahee River Raid, June 1–2, 1863 led by Harriet Tubman and Col. James Montgomery.

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, with the support of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and Secretary of State William Seward (who sold Tubman a house and land in Auburn, New York in 1859), Tubman became a part of the war effort as a nurse in Monroe and Port Royal, South Carolina. There she supported communities of formerly enslaved Black people that flocked to Union lines becoming contraband.

Although laced with controversy (Abraham Lincoln did not believe Black soldiers would be brave enough to fight), the Militia Act of 1862 initiated the recruitment of Black soldiers by the Union army. Before the official formation of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, the soldiers and military personnel were banded into informal auxiliaries and regiments. These bands were organized by the Bureau of Colored Troops in the spring of 1863 after the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

With the arrival of Union colonels Thomas Wentworth Higginson (in the fall of 1862) and James Montgomery (in the spring of 1863) to the Department of the South , Tubman had influential advocates among the Union army and began work as a military scout and spy by early 1863.[xxiv] In addition to Higginson and Montgomery being in charge of Black regiments, they were also abolitionists allied with John Brown in the Harper’s Ferry Raid and Kansas actions respectively.

Extremely clandestine and sensitive, Tubman’s espionage operation was under the direction of the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton.[xxv]

Combahee River Raid, June 1–2, 1863 led by Harriet Tubman and Col. James Montgomery.

Under the leadership of Colonel James Montgomery and Tubman, a band of 150 Black soldiers from the 2nd Regiment Volunteer South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) executed the famed Combahee River Raid in June 1863.[xxvi] In addition to securing the support of enslaved communities, Tubman’s plans provided the location of Rebel torpedoes guiding the Union gunboats to avoid them.[xxvii]

But by the time Confederate headquarters became abreast of the incursion, more than 750 enslaved Black people were self-emancipated onto Union gunboats with the help of Tubman and 150 Black soldiers. With the success of Tubman’s plan, the estates of the Heywards, the Middletons, the Lowndes, and other Carolina dynasties were left ruined and disgraced.[xxviii]

In addition to a Union win, the Combahee River Raid demonstrated the intelligence, organization, and bravery of Black soldiers. This set the stage for the incoming Massachusetts 54th Regiment. The military action also initiated an aggressive strategy directed as the Slave Power economy. Combahee River Raid served as a strategic precedent to Sherman’s March of 1864 and scorched earth military plan.

Having returned to Boston from Canada before the beginning of the Civil War, in 1863 Franklin Sanborn became the editor of the antislavery journal, Commonwealth. Just a month after the raid July 11th, 1863, he published, “Harriet Tubman,” a biography of Tubman as a conductor of the UGRR and her recent contribution as a military organizer of the Combahee River Raid.

Although Black soldiers and military personnel were a central part of Union success, inequality in pay and resources persisted. Specifically, at the intersection of race and gender, the U.S. government was not paying Tubman for her work as a nurse, scout, spy and organizer of newly free communities. [xxix] She raised funds to sustain herself and support freed communities through creating small enterprises baking pies, making savory elixirs — like root beer, and taking in laundry for soldiers and other military personnel. In an effort to fundraise for her, Ednah Dow Cheney, a writer, abolitionist, and friend of Tubman’s, authored a biographical account of Tubman’s life in the Freedmen’s Record, the journal of the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, in March 1865.[xxx]

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]

These types of racist abuses occurred often, and Tubman’s experience demonstrates growing postbellum animosity of the social and political placing of Black people in the United States. Adding insult to physical injury, the United States government ignored and denied Tubman’s requests for military pension as a nurse and Union aide.

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)

The government only provided financial assistance by approving the pension of her veteran husband, Nelson Davis. In need of funds to support her aging parents and pay her mortgage for the Seward property in Auburn, Tubman acquired the help of Sarah Bradford to pen her biography as a manuscript — early biographies were published as articles.

Bradford published Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman in 1869. In addition to describing Tubman’s narrative, the book details records submitted by Tubman to the U.S. government for Civil War pension claims with testimonies from luminaries, such as Lucretia Mott, Franklin Sanborn, William Seward, Gerrit Smith, Thomas Garrett, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Henry Fowler, and Tubman’s nephew James A. Bowley. Although helpful in supporting the immediate financial need for Tubman and her family, contemporary Tubman biographers argue that Bradford’s compulsion for accuracy and truth likely muted many aspects of Tubman’s narrative.[xxxii]

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) by Sarah Bradford.

The narrative also includes exaggerations, such as the $40,000 reward for the capture of Tubman dead or alive, and stating that Tubman’s parents were enslaved when she rescued them. The book has a reputation for being ill-constructed. In the second edition, Bradford confesses “the first edition of this story…was written in the greatest possible haste while the writer was preparing voyage to Europe….There was the pressing need for this book, to save the poor woman’s little home from being sold under mortgage.”[xxxiii]

Bradford’s second edition was highly problematic. Published in 1886 during another period of financial hardship for Tubman, Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886) engenders a reconciliatory representation of chattel slavery and the Civil War. This representation was fomented by the growing popularity of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy narrative during this period. Additionally, the increasing power of the Redeemers represents the transition from Reconstruction (ended in 1877 with the Compromise of 1877) to Jim Crow segregation (supported by the federal government with Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896).

Harriet, The Moses of Her People (1886) by Sarah Bradford.

Much of the vivid details and blunt commentary about slavery from the first edition, such as the “Essay on Woman-Whipping,” were muted.[xxxiv] Contemporary biographer Larson notes that for the first time “Bradford…includes ‘merry little darkies’ on Tubman’s master’s plantation.”[xxxv]

Bradford also uses more dialect when quoting Tubman.[xxxvi] The 1869 and 1886 editions accumulated into an imperfect memoir. While adding to the mythology and misrepresentation of Tubman, the volume reveals thematic caricature reproductions about slavery and the Civil war in the post-war and post-Reconstruction periods.

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:

the election of Black people to public office during radical Reconstruction and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments;

the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction;

Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and separate but equal legislation;

the publication of the best selling novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan in 1905 (which is based on the 1915 film the Birth of a Nation);

the first wave of Great Migration Black people escaping terror in the south.

Tubman almost lived to see the 19th Amendment pass providing women with the right to vote, but did not change anything for Black women barred in the Jim Crow South.

Harriet Tubman, 1911, she lived at The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People by 1911.

Passing away in 1913, Tubman outlived her close colleagues of activists and abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrsion, Frederick Douglass, William Seward, Lucretia Mott, Gerrit Smith, Jermain Loguen, Lewis Hayden, Martha Coffin Wright, Sojourner Truth, Thomas Garrett, Wendell Phillips, William Still.

Before her death, with the help of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Black women club organizations, in 1908, Tubman was able to establish The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. The Harriet Tubman Home became the only charity outside New York City dedicated to the shelter and care of African Americans in New York state.[xxxvii] The main brick building, John Brown Hall, also known as the John Brown Infirmary, was filled with “comfortable furniture, plenty of clean white linen, enameled beds, and surrounded by bountiful orchards.”[xxxviii]

Tablet erected in Auburn, NY in her honor.

Tubman’s story is slowly being reclaimed moving away from the post-Reconstruction revisioning of Sarah Bradford’s narrative. But another Tubman biography was not published until 1943. Earl Conrad, a former Teamsters Union organizer in Harlem, a communist sympathizer, and New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, began research in 1938. Publishers were not interested, until Associated Publishers, a newly founded African American press in Washington, D.C., agreed to publish Conrad’s biography of Tubman. [xxxix]

He interviewed family members and close colleagues of Tubman, in lieu of the lack of archival material. [xl] Most importantly, Conrad highlighted Tubman’s military career (both with John Brown and the Civil War) and her suffrage activism.

A sign of the times, Tubman’s women suffrage activities were contested by leaders in the Women’s movement, such as Carrie Chapman Catt President of National American Woman Suffrage Association after Susan B Anthony. Using Sanford and Conrad as examples, contemporary biographers have reconsidered Tubman narrative and how it is placed in the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

A monument in South End, Boston, MA in Harriet Tubman’s honor.

The legacy of Harriet Tubman still permeates through North American societies. In June 1944 the U.S. Maritime Commission named a Liberty ship in honor of Tubman. The SS Harriet Tubman was the first Liberty ship, out of thousands, to be named for a black woman, and only one of eleven named for an African American. The National Council of Negro Women formally requested the naming of the ship in honor of her, and the Maritime Commission granted the request in the spring of 1944.

In her former home of Canada, she is associated with a recently opened digitized research facility at York University in Ontario: the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora. There is a life-size group of bronze figures dedicated in her honor in Boston’s South End.

Tubman is also a vital figure for radical Black feminism. The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980 lead by scholar Barbara Smith. The Collective’s work highlighted racism and white supremacy within the white feminist movement, and how the movement was not addressing the particular needs of Black women. Harriet’s Apothecary in Brooklyn is a space for activists/healers of color — an ode to Tubman’s role as a healer.

Harriet Tubman’s story vividly moves from bondage to leading an army of formerly enslaved Black people against the Slave Power. As a disabled Black woman without the ability to read and write, the intersectionality at the base of her narrative is central to understanding not only U.S. chattel slavery, but Black liberation, healing, and the importance of ongoing resistance.

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)

*children/young adult books not included

[i] “Freed THE slaves” is a popular byline given to President Abraham Lincoln.

[ii] Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2005), Kindle Location: 1,727

[iii] Larson, Kindle Location: 1,995

[iv] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).4

[v] Larson, Kindle Location: 731

Larson states: “Facing economic pressures, many Eastern Shore planters began selling their excess slave labor to slave traders plying the Chesapeake markets. With the importation of slaves to the United States becoming illegal in 1808, traders from the Deep South and southwest territories turned to internal markets to meet the voracious demand for fresh labor to clear and tame vast new territories in the southwest (Kindle 636)… Rather than manumit their excess slaves, many planter families began to sell them to traders plying the Chesapeake communities, looking for fresh sources of labor for the rapidly expanding economies of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. For Black families, the constant possibility of separation emerged in the nineteenth century as one of the greatest threats to their well-being.” (490)

[vi] Larson, Kindle Location: 1,248

[vii] Ibid, Kindle Location: 983–988

[viii] Ibid, Kindle Location: 1311

[ix] Catherine Clinton, The Road to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005), Kindle Location: 621

[x] Larson, Kindle Location: 731

[xi] Larson, Kindle Location: 2,390

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Benjamin Drew, A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada., (Boston: Jewett, Proctor and Worthington, 1856) Referenced from

[xiv] Larson, Kindle Location: 2,390

[xv] Clinton, Kindle Location: 3,010

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Larson, Kindle Location: 3,036

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Larson, Kindle Location: 3,114

[xxi] Ibid., Kindle Location: 3,336

[xxii] Ibid., Kindle Location: 3,357

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Clinton., Kindle Location: 2,795

[xxv] Ibid., Kindle Location: 2,868

[xxvi] Ibid., Kindle Location: 2,877

[xxvii] Ibid., Kindle Location: 2,887

[xxviii] Ibid., Kindle Location: 2,920

[xxix] Larson, Kindle Location: 4,332

[xxx] Ibid., Kindle Location: 4,332

[xxxi] Ibid., Kindle Location: 4,404

[xxxii] Ibid., Kindle Location: 4,651

[xxxiii] Sarah H. Bradford, The Extraordinary Life Story of Harriet Tubman: The Female Moses Who Led Hundreds of Slaves to Freedom as the Conductor on the Underground Railroad (2 Memoirs in One Volume) Kindle Edition ( e-artnow, 2017), Kindle Edition: 1090

[xxxiv] Larson, Kindle Location: 5,094

[xxxv] Ibid., Kindle Location: 5,094

[xxxvi] Ibid., Kindle Location: 5,101

[xxxvii] Clinton, Kindle Location: 3,656

[xxxviii] Ibid., Kindle Location: 3,656

[xxxix] Larson, Kindle Location: 5,557

[xl] Ibid.



Lisa Betty

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