Racing for Freedom: Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad Network through New York

Article excerpt

On May 14, 1856, "Captain Harriet Human" arrived in the New York City offices of Sydney Howard Gay, an ardent abolitionist, Underground Railroad agent, newspaper editor, and Vigilance Committee member. Arriving with Human were four formerly enslaved young men from Cabin Creek on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: Benjamin Jackson, James Coleman, William Conoway, and Henry Hopkins. Their journey had been treacherous and dangerous - four able-bodied young slaves represented thousands of dollars in assets to their enslavers Slave catchers relentlessly tracked the group along the heavily trodden paths of the Underground Railroad in Delaware and Pennsylvania. By the time these self-liberators and their leader had made it to New York City, they had left the most perilous part of their journey behind them. Nevertheless, they were not completely safe, and their next stops would bring them closer to real freedom in Canada via Central New York's well organized Underground Railroad networks. (2)

After Harriet Human's own escape from Maryland in the late fall of 1849, she spent the next eleven years trying to bring her family and friends to freedom. Some of these rescue stories are featured in Sarah Bradford's 1869 biography. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Human, and a later, modified 1886 edition, Harriet, The Moses of Her People. (3) It is these two biographies, however, that set the stage for the erroneous but praiseworthy myth that Human had conducted nineteen rescue missions, leading 300 people out of bondage. During 1858 and 1859, Human herself repeatedly told audiences that she had rescued between fifty and sixty people in eight to nine trips. Why Bradford chose to ignore Human's own words remains a mystery, though biographer Jean Humez argues that Sarah Bradford lacked the literary confidence and cultural sensitivity to trust Human's own storytelling. (4) The numbers mythology has been complicated by institutional, political, and social discrimination that shaped and obscured the contributions and historical record of the African American experience in America.

The operations of the Underground Railroad most certainly required secrecy, and for generations the secrets and mysteries of the Underground Railroad remained shrouded in hazy lore and legend. This was compounded by a complacency and docile acceptance of the view that few historical records existed documenting the Underground Railroad, effectively erasing any interest in unearthing early primary evidence. Much documentation did exist, however. In spite of readily available sources, including hundreds of contemporary slave narratives, Benjamin Drew's The Refugee: or the North-side View of Slavery (1855); William Stills The Underground Railroad (1872). R-C. Smedley's The History of The Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (1883), and Wilbur Siebert's The Underground Railroad from Slavery7 to Freedom (1897), early to mid-twentieth century authors chose to promote a nearly all-white and mostly Quaker dominated story filled with hidey holes and tunnels.

New work, using these sources and many more, documenting the history of the Underground Railroad, has been quietly happening for decades. Now, the real stories of the Underground Railroad are emerging, and they are far more compelling and dynamic than the folklore and fakelore of 19th and 20th century mythmakers. No more do we need substitutes for the actual stories of escapes to freedom--no more tunnels, lawn jockeys, hidey holes. Follow the Drinking Gourd songs, or, the most unfortunate, the late 20th century quilt code myth.

Harriet Tubman's life story, and her missions rescuing her loved ones in Maryland, has suffered much the same fate. There has been a great deal of speculation and confusion over the details of Tubman's personal network to freedom. Various biographies written over the past one-hundred-and-fifty years, including children's versions and fictionalized accounts, have repeatedly mischaracterized or misquoted vital sources that provided clues to Tubman's rescue missions and exploits during the 1850s. …