Harriet Tubman's Star Is Rising

Roundup: Talking About History

Drew Gilpin Faust, in the NYT (Feb. 15, 2004):

The Post Office has issued not one but two Harriet Tubman stamps; the National Standards for United States History have named Tubman as a figure who should be familiar to students by the fifth grade; Google lists more than 90,000 entries under her name; Amazon.com offers more than 1,200 results in its book category, including one entitled ''Girls Who Rocked the World . . . From Harriet Tubman to Mia Hamm.''

Tubman is far better known in American popular culture and among schoolchildren than she is in the serious historical literature. There has been no adult biography since 1943. Now three scholars have published studies almost simultaneously. Who is Harriet Tubman and why should we care about her? What can we know of her life, how can we know it and how should it shape our understanding of American history?

Tubman was born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore sometime in the early 1820's. She saw her sisters sold, bore scars of whippings all her life and suffered permanent disability from a head injury incurred when an enraged overseer hit her with a weight hurled at another slave, who was trying to run away. In 1849, fearing she would be sold, Tubman fled north, connecting with antislavery activists through what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. She returned to the South more than a dozen times to lead her brother, parents and, ultimately, about 70 individuals to freedom. By the late 1850's, Tubman was appearing on the antislavery lecture circuit and was widely hailed as a heroine across the North. John Brown, who visited her in Canada to seek her help in planning his abortive 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, called her ''General Tubman.'' During the Civil War, Tubman served as teacher, laundress, cook, spy and scout for the Union forces, helping to connect Northern troops with networks of slave information. In June 1863, she played a crucial role in a Union raid in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 slaves.

After the war, Tubman settled in Auburn, N.Y., where she struggled economically the rest of her life, undertaking domestic work and public speaking to support herself and dedicating much of her energy to philanthropic efforts on behalf of the freed people. She also became a regular speaker at woman suffrage gatherings, demanding to know if women's wartime deeds ''do not place woman as man's equal, what do?'' Tubman sought government acknowledgment of her own wartime service -- ''as nurse and cook in hospitals and as commander of several men . . . as scouts,'' as her pension application attested. Her claim was rejected, and she was provided instead with a monthly widow's pension, raised from $8 to $20 in recognition of her work as a nurse. Even the intervention of her congressman did not win official validation of her role as a scout and spy. Deeply spiritual, Tubman died in 1913 with clergymen at her side and a profession of Christian faith on her lips: ''I go away to prepare a place for you.''

comments powered by Disqus