The Life and the Life Stories
Publication Year: 2003
Harriet Tubman’s name is known world-wide and her exploits as a self-liberated Underground Railroad heroine are celebrated in children’s literature, film, and history books, yet no major biography of Tubman has appeared since 1943. Jean M. Humez’s comprehensive Harriet Tubman is both an important biographical overview based on extensive new research and a complete collection of the stories Tubman told about her life—a virtual autobiography culled by Humez from rare early publications and manuscript sources. This book will become a landmark resource for scholars, historians, and general readers interested in slavery, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and African American women.
Born in slavery in Maryland in or around 1820, Tubman drew upon deep spiritual resources and covert antislavery networks when she escaped to the north in 1849. Vowing to liberate her entire family, she made repeated trips south during the 1850s and successfully guided dozens of fugitives to freedom. During the Civil War she was recruited to act as spy and scout with the Union Army. After the war she settled in Auburn, New York, where she worked to support an extended family and in her later years founded a home for the indigent aged. Celebrated by her primarily white antislavery associates in a variety of private and public documents from the 1850s through the 1870s, she was rediscovered as a race heroine by woman suffragists and the African American women’s club movement in the early twentieth century. Her story was used as a key symbolic resource in education, institutional fundraising, and debates about the meaning of "race" throughout the twentieth century.
Humez includes an extended discussion of Tubman’s work as a public performer of her own life history during the nearly sixty years she lived in the north. Drawing upon historiographical and literary discussion of the complex hybrid authorship of slave narrative literature, Humez analyzes the interactive dynamic between Tubman and her interviewers. Humez illustrates how Tubman, though unable to write, made major unrecognized contributions to the shaping of her own heroic myth by early biographers like Sarah Bradford. Selections of key documents illustrate how Tubman appeared to her contemporaries, and a comprehensive list of primary sources represents an important resource for scholars.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
List of Illustrations
My decision to work on Tubman’s life stories was inspired by discussions with students in a course on spiritual autobiographies I taught during a year spent at the Harvard Divinity School (1990–1991). I thank my students in that seminar and Connie Buchanan, then director of the Women’s Studies in Religion program, for a wonderful year in which the seed of this book was sown.
In the twenty-first century we continue to be inspired by the larger-than-life figure of Harriet Tubman (1820–1913), still the most famous African American female hero. In her own day she was called “the most remarkable woman of this age” for her courage and success in guiding fugitive slaves out of slave territory in the 1850s and for her Union army service behind Confederate lines.
Part 1: The Life
The Slavery Years
Harriet Tubman was born into American slavery, a complex legal, social, economic, cultural, and psychological world that had evolved in the colonies of the eastern seaboard over nearly two hundred years.1 After the Revolutionary War and the federal abolition of the slave trade in 1808, the legal institution was well on its way to gradual extinction in the North, primarily for economic reasons, but also because of growing religion-based antislavery organizing by Quakers and others.
The Underground Railroad Years
During the early 1850s, as Harriet Tubman began her work with the Underground Railroad, the slavery question came to dominate national political debate. Antislavery sentiment, once confined to a tiny minority of radicals in the North, spread dramatically, and soon national dissolution came to seem inevitable. Several important legal developments help us understand this dramatic shift in popular opinion in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The War Years
As Tubman prepared for her last Maryland rescue trip, the nation plunged toward civil war. The election of Abraham Lincoln a president on the Republican Party ticket in November 1860 (backed by all but one of the free states, but with only 40 percent of the popular vote) touched off what historians have called the “secession crisis.” Reacting to the prospect of what they saw as an antislavery administration, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina on December 20, left the Union within six weeks.
The Postwar Years in Auburn
As Harriet Tubman was returning to Auburn in the fall of 1865, traveling on a government pass on a train from Philadelphia to New York, a conductor tried to remove her from a car and in strenuously resisting she suffered both insult and injury. Bradford’s account of the event was highly indignant on her behalf: “When the conductor looked at her ticket, he said, ‘Come, hustle out of here! We don’t carry niggers for half fare.’ Harriet explained to him that she was in the employ of the government, and was entitled to transportation as the soldiers were.
The Later Years
Industrial, technological, and economic expansion followed the Civil War in the North, but the sharecropping system that developed in the still largely agricultural South locked the majority of the landless rural black population there into deep economic dependency and poverty. The continuing economic exploitation was backed up by new strategies of political disenfranchisement. After the end of Federal Reconstruction in ...
Coping with Poverty
When Congress finally passed a bill making widows of Civil War soldiers eligible for pensions, in June 1890, Harriet Tubman immediately applied, and after several years and much paper work, she received a tiny award of $8 a month.1 This amount was inadequate for her needs. Moreover, a widow’s pension was an unsatisfactory substitute for the veteran’s pension to which her own war service entitled her. In 1898, she submitted an affidavit to the Committee on Invalid Pensions, testifying to the accuracy of the account of her war services that had ...
Part 2: The Life Stories
Harriet Tubman’s Practices as a Life-Storyteller
Harriet Tubman’s autobiographical medium was the well-told individual story performed for an audience—not the more private, analytical, and self-reflective commentary characteristic of autobiographers in the habit of reading and writing.1 She was schooled in her Maryland childhood in the distinctive storytelling practices of an African American subculture within a larger Anglo-American rural culture—both traditions intimately shaped by the power dynamics of the institution of slavery.
Reading the Core Stories for Harriet Tubman’s Own Perspective
Many of the childhood stories collected and published by Cheney, Sanborn, and Bradford emphasize, in the manner of the classic abolitionist slave narrative, the heartless cruelty of the various white employers to whom Harriet Tubman was hired out and do not reveal much about her own family life or her private emotional world. However, a few stories captured later in her life by her white Auburn neighbor Emma Paddock Telford offer a less politicized, more intimate ...
Part 3: Stories and Sayings
When selecting from several recorded versions of a core story text, I have preferred those of writers who knew Harriet Tubman well or at least had documented interviews with her. In most cases I have chosen earlier recorded versions of stories over later ones—not only because they probably reflect a fresher memory of the events retold, but also because there is less probable “contamination” by other printed versions of the story.1
Part 4: Documents
Like the story texts, the document excerpts below generally preserve the original spellings and punctuation, though I have occasionally inserted paragraph breaks for the convenience of the reader. All of Tubman’s own letters (and one from her brother John Stewart) are printed in their entirety, but to save space I have included only brief passages from the letters by those who knew her, omitting salutations, closings, and other material not directly relevant to Tubman’s life history.