Surveys of freshmen at the State University of New York at Buffalo who registered for the introductory US history course in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that more of them knew of Harriet Tubman than any other woman who lived before 1900 except Betsy Ross. Tubman also ranked higher on this recognition scale than Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, Patrick Henry, and a host of other prominent figures.1
Like Betsy Ross, Tubman had achieved mythical stature because of her conspicuous place in school textbooks and children’s stories about he-roic Americans. The legendary “Moses” of her people, who escaped from slavery in 1849 and returned to Maryland again and again to lead three hundred more slaves to freedom, she also served as a scout during the Civil War and led Union soldiers on raids into the South Carolina interior to liberate hundreds more slaves. For children black or white, Hispanic or Indian, immigrant or native-born, these stories of risk and adventure propelled Tubman ahead of Davy Crockett and Nathan Hale and put her right up there with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
It was not always that way. For decades after her death in 1913 at the probable age of ninety (her exact birth date is unknown), Tubman languished in obscurity. The only African-Americans who enjoyed historical fame in those years were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. In the 1930s the labor activist Earl Conrad (Earl Cohen) decided to write a biography of Tubman. “I looked over the various Negro figures,” Conrad explained,
and I came to the conclusion that Harriet was the greatest and the one about whom, for her stature, the least was known. I believed that through presenting Harriet I could show also the contributions of the Negro people.
Conrad could not interest any mainstream publisher in his biography, however. The black-owned Associated Publishers in Washington finally published his General Harriet Tubman in 1943. The book had few reviews, not many more buyers, and soon went out of print.
Since 1960, however, the greater visibility of black activists and of women in American history has launched a veritable Tubman boom. At least fifty-four children’s and young people’s fiction and nonfiction titles about Tubman have been published: six in the 1960s, five in the next decade, six again in the 1980s, twenty-one in the 1990s, and sixteen since 2000. Millions of schoolchildren have watched the educational movie Freedom Train and other dramas based on Tubman’s life. Dozens of public schools around the country bear her name. She is enshrined in impressive monuments in Boston and Battle Creek, Michigan. In Canada (where Tubman lived for a time in the 1850s), York University recently opened a digitized Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora.
Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York, where she lived most of her life in freedom, has become a popular tourist site. An annual celebration takes place there on Memorial Day weekend, when high school girls compete for the title…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.