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Notes from the Underground Railroad
By Margaret Black

Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories
By Jean M. Humez, 471 pages, $45

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero
By Kate Clifford Larson, 402 pages, $26.95

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
By Catherine Clinton, 272 pages, $ 27.95

After more than 60 years, Harriet Tubman has finally escaped the hagiographic bondage of juvenile biography into the complex freedom of not just one, but three adult accounts of her life. This sudden wealth certainly dramatizes a renewed interest in Tubman’s contributions to our national history, but it also draws attention to the complications surrounding a figure who left no written record of her own. Illiterate all her life, Tubman offered only oral presentations of her story, so posterity must rely on the interpretations and impressions of others, a fact that increases tenfold the problems of “truth” inherent in any biography. In addition, “hard facts” are very thinly scattered in Harriet’s tale—her name and year of birth for starters—and many biases and agendas, including Tubman’s own, have shaped and reshaped the telling of her tale.

From school, you probably remember that Harriet Tubman was an American slave who escaped captivity prior to the Civil War, but returned south many times, endangering her life, to say nothing of her freedom, in order to bring other slaves north. Perhaps you also recall that Tubman just missed accompanying John Brown on the disastrous Harper’s Ferry raid and that she served during the Civil War as a nurse, cook, laundress, scout, and spy. She even directed one famous raid into Georgia that freed more than 700 slaves and destroyed a goodly amount of Confederate property. But almost no one knows that after the war she worked assiduously in support of women’s suffrage and a wide variety of black causes. Always horribly poor, she also maintained an extensive household of relatives, needy children and old people by her own hard physical labor. Money never stayed long in Tubman’s pocket, and she didn’t spend it on herself.

The first accounts about Tubman date from shortly after she crossed the Mason-Dixon line, when she was debriefed, as we would say today, by various “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad. After she had made several trips back south, abolitionists asked her to speak to small groups about her experiences of slavery and the dangerous trips she was making. A natural actor, Tubman sang, danced, gestured, whispered, and laughed with joy at the ways she and other slaves eluded capture. The abolitionists quickly called her “Moses” because she was leading her people to the Promised Land. Equally quickly they began to inflate her exploits, since greater feats of heroism attracted more supporters to abolition.

After the Civil War, Tubman became a much more vexing subject. Class and cultural differences, as well as racism, distorted the vision even of her supporters. In Tubman’s first biography—an “as told to” affair that Tubman arranged in 1868 in order to raise money—the author, Sarah Bradford, tells Tubman’s tales in her version of Tubman’s Southern dialect, a quaint and condescending move that distances Tubman’s life from accounts like that of Frederick Douglass, whose language and reflections resembled those of educated middle-class whites. Tubman’s postwar white supporters tended to prefer her as the simple hero of the Underground Railroad rather than as the struggling black farmer who didn’t use money the way they wanted her to. After Tubman’s death in 1913, almost nothing was written about her until the ’30s when a labor activist named Earl Conrad undertook a major biography. He had grown up in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman finally settled, and was looking for just “the right black history subject.” He interviewed many family members, and his work was meticulous, but it took him until 1943 to find a publisher. Interest in Tubman continued to languish among whites until the civil rights movement, when her slave-stealing adventures reemerged in the form of edifying children’s narratives.

Of the three new biographies, that by Catherine Clinton probably will win the widest readership. This is too bad because it’s not much more than a higher-calorie juvenile biography. Clinton, an academic with several popular histories to her credit, has the easiest writing style, although this book seems curiously pro forma, and it’s also the shortest. Her readers don’t have to know much history because Clinton supplies background on everything from conditions under slavery to the Underground Railroad and John Brown. But Clinton sticks to the old heroic narrative. One footnote mentions that scholars question the number of trips Tubman actually made south, but in the text itself, Clinton speaks of “countless missions.” One painful tooth that Tubman was known to have knocked out of her mouth becomes “her top row of teeth.” Tubman’s activities after the war receive very short shrift.

Kate Larson and Jean Humez have done far more research and questioned everything. Both are academics who traded information with each other on new sources and theories, so it’s a shame that their accounts must compete with each other. Larson, like Clinton, studies Tubman’s life chronologically and provides historical background, but Larson provides a much richer and more nuanced analysis, particularly with regard to conditions in Maryland where Tubman grew up. Larson’s painstaking research into Tubman’s family is a matter of some importance because Tubman seems to have gone back south because she wanted to rescue her family. Often a group she brought north would include nonrelatives, and if she could not bring those she intended to rescue, she would take others who were ready to go. She also seems to have given instructions to many whom she didn’t personally guide to freedom. But it appears that her principal motivation was to free what remained of her blood family. This in no way belittles her courage, generosity, or commitment to abolition, but rather it puts her actions into a real-life context. Larson also discusses the many jobs Tubman worked to collect the funds necessary for her dangerous trips south as well as to help fund the new lives of those she brought to Canada (and later upstate New York). Larson treats Tubman’s fascinating Civil War career in similar detail, which makes all the more shameful the federal government’s failure to pay her properly.

Alas, Larson is not a stylist, although she improves as her book progresses. In terms of sheer information and thoughtful evaluation, however, her book is greatly superior to Clinton’s. In addition, Larson’s book has maps, an invaluable genealogical chart of Tubman’s family, and a concise chronology of Tubman’s life.

The study by Humez is by far the most interesting of the three biographies. I devoutly pray that teachers who plan to discuss Tubman in their classes will read this book. Not only does Humez untangle the many versions of Tubman’s story, but she also evaluates them with dazzling clarity. She discusses oral slave testimony with great insight and reminds us of simple but often overlooked truths, such as the fact that former slaves were more candid when they talked to black researchers. Humez notes how Tubman’s admirers all expressed their complete faith in her honesty and candor, as they simultaneously celebrated her proven ability to hoodwink and fool people. Many commented on her ability to control her face and appearance, without reflecting that she might have reason to do so with them as well. This becomes particularly pertinent later in Tubman’s life when her aims and those of her white friends were not necessarily as congruent as they had been prior to and during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman, insofar as we can approach the actual person, was a courageous woman of great strength, endurance, and generosity, not a plastic action figure. Larson and Humez do their level best to let us see Tubman as she really was.

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