We May Never Know the Real Harriet Tubman

By Singer, Alan | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2012 | Go to article overview

We May Never Know the Real Harriet Tubman


Singer, Alan, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


During the 150th anniversary celebrations of the American Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is fitting to focus attention on the life of Harriet Tubman, New Yorker by choice, self-liberated former slave, religious evangelical Underground Railroad conductor, and Civil War scout and nurse. However, we may never know who the real Harriet Tubman was. There is even debate over her signature achievement as a conductor on the Underground Railroad leading enslaved Africans to freedom in the North and Canada. The number of trips she made to the South is not well documented and estimates range between seven and nineteen, although fourteen is probably the more accurate figure. Similarly, there is disagreement about the number of people she rescued on these trips, from sixty to almost four hundred. (2) The highly regarded Black Abolitionist Papers credit Tubman with "at least nine during the 1850s to lead some 180 slaves to freedom ..." (3)

Tubman's star as a major historical actor has risen and fallen in the past 150 years. (4) In 1994, the heavily maligned National Council for History proposed U.S. History standards, overwhelmingly rejected by a vote of the U.S. Senate, that included six references to Harriet Tubman but none for Paul Revere, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or the Wright blothers. (5) However, in 2006, when Atlantic magazine asked a panel of ten eminent historians to identify the 100 most influential figures in American history, Harriet Tubman did not make a list that included ten other women, four white abolitionists, and eight African Americans. On this list, Bell ranked as the 24th most influential American, the Wright brothers 23rd, and Thomas Edison 9th. (6)

One reason we may never know who the real Harriet Tubman was is because her life has been reconstructed based on limited historical evidence to make what are essentially political points. I find it is useful to compare her tale to accounts of the life of Malcolm X. There is Ossie Davis' noble Black Prince, (7) the changeling portrayed by Alex Haley in Malcolm's "autobiography," (8) Spike Lee and Denzel Washington's much cooler and composed movie version, (9) and the Malcolm buried beneath a mountain of information in Manning Marable's definitive and encyclopedic biography. (10) Similarly, Harriet Tubman has been depicted in messianic terms as the Moses of her people and the Black Joan of Arc, portrayed as the noble Queen of the Underground Railroad, described using military parlance as General Tubman, and been presented as a much simpler and maternal Mother Tubman or Aunt Harriet. (11)

One of the most power iterations of Harriet Tubman is a painting by Jacob Lawrence with a youthful looking, strong, upright, and barefoot Harriet wearing a red blouse and white skirt while holding a pistol in her hand as she pushes and leads a band of fugitive slaves to freedom. (12) Surviving photographs provide us with very different images Tubman. One photograph historian Kale Clifford Larson dates to 1887 or 1888 (other accounts differ), show her with a group of African Americans, three children, two adult males, and an elderly woman. (13) Tubman, to the far left in the picture, is hunched over, her shoulders facing inward. She holds a washing bowl in front of her and wears a long simple dress and a round-brimmed hat. This is certainly not the ferocious heroine portrayed by Lawrence.

There also survive a posed headshot of Tubman and at least five full-length portraits, two standing, and three sitting, as well as a widely-circulated woodcut from the first edition of the Sarah Bradford biography. Tubman portrayed as a Civil War scout carrying a rifle. (14) One of the full-length portraits shows Tubman dressed in plain but formal dress with a neck scarf. This picture probably was intended as a publicity shot for books. The most intriguing photograph, circa 1895, shows Tubman wearing a headscarf and looking much more like a veteran of the anti-slavery campaigns and the Civil War. …

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