Cover

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Frontmatter

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Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

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.

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Introduction

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pp. 3-8

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

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The Slavery Years

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pp. 11-18

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.

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The Underground Railroad Years

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pp. 19-43

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.

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The War Years

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pp. 45-68

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.

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The Postwar Years in Auburn

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pp. 69-90

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.

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The Later Years

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pp. 91-107

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 ...

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Coping with Poverty

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pp. 109-129

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

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Harriet Tubman’s Practices as a Life-Storyteller

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pp. 133-172

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.

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Reading the Core Stories for Harriet Tubman’s Own Perspective

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pp. 173-194

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 ...

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Part 3: Stories and Sayings

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pp. 195-275

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

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Part 4: Documents

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pp. 277-339

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.

Appendix A: A Note on Harriet Tubman’s Kin

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pp. 343-348

Appendix B: A Note on the Numbers

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pp. 349-352

Notes

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pp. 353-408

Bibliography

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pp. 409-441

Index

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pp. 443-471