Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harriet Tubman, "Moses" for African American Slaves

Harriet Tubman, born Araminty Ross (escaped slavery 17 September 1849)

Although the date of her birth is unknown (she was born in Manchester County, Maryland, probably probably between 1820 and 1822), the woman whom we know today as Harriet Tubman lived a long life, dying on 10 March 1913, almost fifty years after the end of the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman, c. 1885
I am posting about Tubman today because on 17 September 1849 she escaped from slavery. 

The daughter of slave parents, Ben Ross and Harriet Green, Araminta (or "Minty") Ross, as she was known then, was born as the property of Mary Patisson Brodess. At the age of eleven, Araminta began calling herself "Harriet," after her mother. After Mary Patisson Brodess's death, her slaves became the property of her son, Edward Brodess. In 1844, Harriet Ross married a free black man, John Tubman.

But after Brodess's death, and fearful that his wife Eliza would sell off the slaves, Harriet Tubman escaped.

Although she would be returned after that first escape, Harriet Tubman eventually escaped again and arrived in Philadelphia. Her glorious story from that point--as an abolitionist; as a woman who returned to slave-holding territories to help other enslaved people to freedom; as a nurse, scout, and guide (and perhaps a spy) during the Civil War; and as a suffragist after the Civil War--has become iconic.

Her gravestone is on the National Register of Historic Places, she's had a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor, and in 2013 Barack Obama signed a proclamation creating the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. She has an asteroid named after her, and dozens of schools, and her very own Google Doodle. She's also included in the calendar of saints in both the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America. 

An 1849 reward notice for "Minty," about
twenty-seven years old
But rather than summarizing her life or enumerating her accomplishments, I thought I might link you here to Ethan Kytle and Carl Geissert's excellent New York Times editorial, "Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad." 

After the Civil War, of course, everyone claimed to have been involved with helping enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. But, as Kytle and Geissert note, "Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts."

And, as Kytle and Geissert also observe, "postwar accounts--nearly all of which were produced by white Northerners--tended to portray runaways as 'passengers' [on the Underground Railroad], effectively reducing them to a supporting role in their own liberation. Some authors inflated the number of fugitive slaves that they had helped, while others neglected the work of black railroad operatives. Over all, they painted a picture of the Underground Railroad as a white-dominated enterprise in which runaways were spirited to freedom by their Northern guardians."

"Even more troubling," they conclude, "many memorialists failed to connect their stories of the Underground Railroad to the postwar struggle for black civil rights": 
Instead, they served up what the historian David Blight describes as "a mythos of accomplished glory, a history of emancipation completed." Just as Lost Cause ideologues strove to conceal the rise of Jim Crow--from segregation and disenfranchisement to an epidemic of lynching--behind a facade of Old South harmony, Northerners told "self congratulatory adventure tales" that implied that the nation had solved its racial problems decades earlier. In this way, they joined their Southern counterparts in turning nostalgia for life before the war into a refuge from the disturbing realities of the postwar racial landscape.
So today might be a good day not only to remember Harriet Tubman--the real woman, not the fictionalized, glossy image of our imaginations--but to focus on what Blight has termed "race and reunion."

Harriet Tubman, photo from 1911
There are many biographies of Tubman (at least thirty aimed at juvenile readers, by my count)--I recommend Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.

I also suggest David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

On the larger question of the role of African-American activists in abolition and the end of slavery, Ira Berlin's The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States is essential. As New York Times reviewer Edward E. Baptist notes, "The Long Emancipation offers a useful reminder that abolition was not the charitable work of respectable white people, or not mainly that. Instead, the demise of slavery was made possible by the constant discomfort inflicted on middle-class white society by black activists."

Update (16 October 2016): As Kathryn Schulz notes in her recent New Yorker essay, "Derailed: The Troubling Allure of the Underground Railroad," there has been an "outpouring of interest" recently in the Underground Railroad--she counts two new novels, Carson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad: A Novel (an Oprah Bookclub selection!) and Ben Winters's counterfactual Underground Airlines, WGN America's television series Underground, as well as a forthcoming HBO biopic about Harriet Tubman, not to mention scholarly publications on the railroad and Tubman. But Schulz reminds us that, in many ways, the Underground Railroad remains "our favorite piece of mythic infrastructure." This is an excellent contextualizing essay--I did not know that, as Schulz clarifies, "most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north." "In fact," she continues,
despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, most who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, free-black neighborhoods in the upper South, or Maroon communities--clandestine societies of former slaves, some fifty of which existed in the South from 1672 until the end of the Civil War. Together, such runaways likely outnumbered those who, aided by Northern abolitionists, made their way to free states or to Canada.

Finally, she reminds us, most slaves did not run at all--some attempted to purchase their freedom and some sought legal judgments to end their freedom, but, "from the vast, vicious, legally permitted, fiercely defended enterprise that was American slavery, almost no one ever escaped at all."

For Schulz's essay, click here.