Nearly a century after her death, there’s new buzz over Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad “conductor.”
The 5-foot-2, physically challenged escaped slave is the motivation behind two national projects in the works, a conference and even a recent controversy. As interest grows, more facts come out about Tubman that make her seem more tied to powerful women in modern times.
“In my mind, it’s just her time that we’re finally going to recognize her,” said Barbara Tagger, a National Park Service historian who has been studying Tubman for several years.
Tagger and other admirers point out that this illiterate, physically tiny African-American woman personally guided hundreds of slaves to freedom, warning them she would shoot them if they tried to turn back, kept going even when her husband refused to leave their native Maryland, advised federal officials during the Civil War and worked as a respected equal alongside male leaders. Later in life, she settled down with a new husband 20 years her junior.
Key for Ellen Mousin, coordinator of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference, is that Tubman kept returning to her native Eastern Shore in Maryland to get more slaves even after she’d found her freedom. Some in the area say landowners were baffled as to why their slaves just kept vanishing during that time.
“She’s the only one that kept coming back and she kept coming back because of family,” Mousin said. “She’s kind of a model for how important family can be.”
Mousin once lived in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman spent the last years of her life, but it was not until Mousin moved to the Eastern Shore, where Tubman was born, that she found herself with more time to start studying the abolitionist.
Early in June, she oversaw the second annual Harriet Tubman conference. It drew 110 people, a dramatic increase from the 30 people who came the first year. People who attended discussed everything from the importance of oral history to the logistics of research in a small town.
What they all had in common was an almost cult-like appreciation of Tubman, who some point out was not daunted in her Railroad activities even after her husband decided he wanted to be with someone else, and who was able to bend the ears of powerful white male figures of the times.
“Despite the fact that she could not read or write, she could tell her story and raise money,” Mousin said.
The conference run by Mousin and a local history organization is just one of a handful of efforts that have been bubbling up to recognize Tubman, who died in 1913. Two visitors’ centers are in the works in Auburn, N.Y., and Cambridge, Md. And in recent months, Maryland lawmakers entered into a heated debate over replacing a statue of the president of the Continental Congress, a Maryland native, in the U.S. Capitol with one of Tubman. The pro-Tubman lawmakers did not win that fight in the last state legislative session, but the debate drew national attention to a growing sentiment in Maryland that Tubman deserves and elevated place in history.
“You have this petite woman, but yet she has such a big voice in the world,” said Tagger, of the National Park Service.
Tagger, who works out of the park service’s Atlanta office, has been traveling back and forth between the Georgia city and Tubman’s native Eastern Shore in Maryland to oversee the March 2013 opening of a visitor’s center and monument to Tubman in Cambridge. The year will mark the 100th anniversary of Tubman’s death. The site will be similar to the one planned for Auburn, a small city in upstate New York. In February, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced a bill proposing to set aside up to $7.5 million to establish the two National Historical Parks devoted to Tubman. Supporters are now seeking House sponsors for the projects
“She belongs in the pantheon of great American heroes,” said historian John Creighton of Cambridge, Md., who has been fascinated with and studied Tubman since 1964, when he first moved to the area.
“She was born a girl, she was born enslaved, she was born an African-American, she never learned to read or write and she had this debilitating injury,” Creighton said. “When you add it all up, it’s an incredible life.”
“There’s something so amazingly compelling about her – it’s hard to define,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.
Tubman’s given name was Araminta Ross and she is believed to have been born into slavery in 1820 or 1822 in Dorchester County or Caroline County, Md.
Today, away from the commercial strip of Route 50, the region looks the way it must have in Tubman’s time. There are open fields and tall grasses, dirt roads and tributaries curling out of the Choptank River and the Chesapeake Bay. One-room churches no longer in use stand next to cemeteries with ancient headstones. Markers bear names like Ross, Green and Manokey — all names with ties to Tubman.
In summer, there are horse flies and snakes. The winter is bitter cold. It would not have been an easy area to navigate during the days of the Underground Railroad.
Historians believe Tubman lived on a farm in Peters Neck, a hamlet in Dorchester County, with her parents, Ben Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green, four sisters and three brothers (one brother died as an infant). As a toddler, she went with her mother and siblings to live on a farm in Bucktown, another rural Dorchester County community.
An event that took place in a dry goods store in Bucktown when Tubman was 12 or 13 would affect the rest of her life. An overseer in the store threw a two-pound weight at a young male slave trying to escape. Tubman stepped in the way and the weight hit her in the head. After that, she suffered spells that caused her to fall asleep suddenly.
Charles E.T. Ross, Tubman’s great-great-great-great nephew, said that his grandfather always told him Tubman thought her affliction was divine.
“She would always believe that was God’s way of forcing her to rest,” said Ross, 45, of Cambridge, Md. “She believed it happened when it was supposed to happen.”
In 1844, she met and married John Tubman, a free black man, and changed her name. When her owner died in 1849, she feared she would be sold and she ran away to Philadelphia.
Tubman told Sarah Bradford, an earlier biographer, that when she first crossed the Mason-Dixon line, “The sun came like gold through the tree and over the field and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore several times to get her family members and others who wanted to escape.
“In studying her, what came through so loudly and clearly is she loved her family, she loved her friends and that drove her every day of her life,” Larson said.
Unlike the depictions of the Underground Railroad of slaves holding up lanterns to see at night and traveling north on the along roads, it is more likely that Tubman and her charges scrambled through the woods in the pitch dark, Larson said.
Historians believe she used navigational skills such as studying tree moss and river flows that she learned form her father. She’d tell any of her charges who had a change of heart that she’d shoot them if they turned back, said Wilbur Jackson, 80, of Cambridge, Md., who said his family believes they are Tubman descendants.
One on trip, she saw John Tubman had taken another wife and was satisfied to remain in Dorchester County. That didn’t slow her down. Eventually, she got her parents and relocated with them to St. Catharines, Ontario, from 1857 to 1859.
By the time of the Civil War, Tubman’s reputation was national. She had gained respect among abolitionists, black and white, including Frederick Douglass and William Seward, a senator from New York who would later become President Lincoln’s secretary of state. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of property in Auburn for a small price.
“We still can’t figure out why he sold her the acreage,” Mousin said. “She was still a fugitive slave, she was black and she was a woman. But he did.”
John Andrew, Massachusetts’ abolitionist governor, thought Tubman would be an asset to Union efforts and arranged for her to travel to Port Royal, S.C., site of the “Port Royal Experiment” to see if freed slaves could be taught to function in a capitalist America. Tubman used $200 she’d received from the federal government to create a “wash house.” There, she and newly freed women slaves washed and sewed clothes and baked for Union soldiers.
“It was a great source of pride for her,” Larson said.
Generals sought Tubman’s advice because of her expertise from the Underground Railroad in surveillance and reconnaissance.
In one particularly dangerous mission in 1863, Tubman led Col. James Montgomery in a successful raid to free slaves from plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. Three gunboats carrying Tubman and several hundred male soldiers set out. Thanks to information from her scouts, Tubman knew where Confederates were hiding. She and the raiders freed about 750 slaves.
According to a study by the National Park Service, Tubman also took part in the Battle of Olustee, Fla., in February 1864 and nursed the wounded in Jacksonville and Fernandina, Fla., after the Union retreated. She helped nurse soldiers suffering from wounds and epidemics, and helped bury the dead after the deadly assault at Fort Wagner at Morris Island, S.C.
Tubman received no pay for her work as a nurse in the war, and little for her role as a spy and a scout. In 1865, she returned to Auburn and, four years later, married Nelson Davis, a volunteer with the 8th United States Colored Regiment. Tubman took in the sick, disabled, the homeless and orphaned children despite persistent financial difficulties. In 1896, she purchased 25 acres adjoining her home to establish the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged.
When she died in 1913, newspapers across the country covered her funeral.
“I am convinced history resonates,” said Larson said. “I think everyone can see a little bit of themselves in Harriet Tubman.”