I like the movie Harriet, especially the singing, but again, I also liked Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Wolverine, and Dr. Strange (but not Thor, Aquaman, or the Avengers series). Harriet the movie is about a super-hero whose superpower is that God gives her specific directions about what to do (turn left at the river).
Harriet in the movie is based on an important historical figure, but in the end, she is a movie character, not the historic Harriet Tubman. As a movie, two-thumbs up; as history, too many rotten tomatoes.
The reality is that we may never know the real Harriet Tubman. There is even debate over her signature achievement as a conductor on the Underground Railroad leading enslaved Africans to freedom in the North and Canada. The number of trips she made to the South is not well documented and estimates range between seven and nineteen. Similarly, there is disagreement about the number of people she rescued on these trips, from sixty to almost four hundred (Sernett, 2007: 56-62). The highly regarded Black Abolitionist Papers (Ripley, 1992) credited Tubman with at least nine trips during the 1850s to lead approximately 180 people to freedom.
One of the most powerful images of Harriet Tubman is a painting by Jacob Lawrence with a youthful looking, strong, upright, and barefoot Harriet wearing a red blouse and white skirt while holding a pistol in her hand as she pushes and leads a band of fugitive slaves to freedom. Surviving photographs provide very different images of Tubman. One shows her with a group of African Americans, three children, two adult males, and an elderly woman. Tubman, to the far left in the picture, is hunched over, her shoulders facing inward. She holds a washing bowl in front of her and wears a long simple dress and a round-brimmed hat. This is certainly not the ferocious heroine portrayed by Lawrence or in the movie.
Because she was illiterate (it was illegal to teach enslaved Africans to read and write in the South), and perhaps also because of a brain injury she suffered when struck in the head in her youth, Harriet Tubman was forced to rely on others to write her story. Her chief spokesperson was Sarah H. Bradford, a white women and schoolteacher from Geneva, New York (Larson, 2004: 242).
In the introduction to the 1869 edition of her biography of Tubman (Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman), Bradford claimed her “single object” (i) was to argue Tubman’s case for a Civil War veteran’s pension, however she also wanted to ensure Tubman’s place in history. The biography was revised, lengthened, and reissued in 1886 as Harriet, The Moses of her People. The revisions reflected changes in American culture and society from the post-Civil War era to the post-Reconstruction period. For example, in the second edition, Bradford muted criticism of slavery, wrote passages in dialect, and used racial stereotypes in her descriptions of African Americans.
In the movie, Harriet speaks standard English and is a powerful orator, which is almost certainly inaccurate. When she grew older, Tubman was a noted local storyteller elaborating on her own exploits and reworking her legend (Sernett, 2007:12). In an 1890s interview, she welcomed the appellation Moses of her people claiming, “I felt like Moses. De Lord tole me to do dis. I said, ‘O Lord, I can’t – don’t ask me – take somebody else.’ Den I could hear de Lord answer, ‘It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman’ – jess as clar I heard him speak – an’ den I’d go agen down South an’ bring up my brudders and sisters’” (Sernett, 2007: 42).
Harriet Tubman was barely mentioned in major contemporary accounts of the Underground Railroad, which suggests her current renown developed after the fact. William Still (1872) published a history of the Underground Railroad after the Civil War and the movie portrayed him as a major partner and enabler of Harriet. Still was an Underground Railroad stationmaster in Philadelphia as well as a member of Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and secretary and executive director of the area’s General Vigilance Committee. His eight-hundred page book, The Underground Rail Road, A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc., Narrating the Hardships Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their efforts for Freedom, as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author; together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders, and most liberal aiders and advisers, of the road, is filled with anecdotes and biographical information about abolitionists and fugitive slaves, but Still only has brief mentions of Harriet Tubman including one incident where “Moses” arrived in Philadelphia with six “passengers” (Still, 1872: 297-298).
“Captain Harriet Tubman” is briefly mentioned in the unpublished notebooks of New York City abolitionist Sydney Howard Gay, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard from 1844 to 1858. Gay appeared to have met Tubman in May 1856 when she brought a party of four escapees to New York from Philadelphia. According to Gay, up until that point Tubman had made six return trips to the Maryland Eastern Shore principally to rescue family members and “lead them out of Egypt.” Gay’s notes suggest that Tubman played a small role on the Underground Railroad in a geographically specific area (Foner, 2015: 191-194).
Frederick Douglass may have provided the best explanation for the difficulty in defining Harriet Tubman in a letter to Tubman and Bradford prior to publication of the first edition of Tubman’s biography. Douglass wrote (Bradford, 1869):
“The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt “God bless you” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you.”
While Douglass was a spokesperson for the abolitionist cause and a public figure, Tubman, by necessity, worked at night, in private, and with the most marginalized members of the community. In addition, Douglass suggests her accomplishments were minimized because she was Black, a former slave, and a woman.
The movie shows Tubman and Douglass present at an abolitionist meeting at William Seward’s house in Auburn, New York, although Douglass is not specifically identified. Frederick Douglass was a prolific writer and frequent orator, yet leaves behind almost no suggestion of a relationship with Harriet Tubman besides his endorsement of the Bradford biography. He did not mention Tubman or a relationship with her in any of the editions of his memoirs (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass). Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Foner and Taylor, 1999) includes the 1868 letter and refers to a January 1858 letter from Douglass to the Ladies’ Irish Anti-Slavery Association where he discussed to an unnamed “coloured woman, who escaped from slavery eight years ago,” who “has made several returns at great risk, and has brought out since obtaining her freedom fifty others from the house of bondage. She has been spending a short time with us since the holidays. She possesses great courage and shrewdness, and may yet render even more important service to the Cause” (600-601). In the letter Douglass did not identify the woman by name.
Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman may have met in 1851 when Tubman led a band of eleven fugitives through Rochester on the route to Canada (Larson: 2004: 92-93). Douglass mentions the “occasion” in his memoirs (1892/1962) because it stood out for him as “the largest number I ever had at one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter …” (266). However, he did not identify Tubman as part of this group.
I don’t know why, but Harriet Tubman’s prominent and well documented role in the Charles Nalle rescue in Troy, New York on April 28, 1860 was not included in the movie. Newspaper accounts reported that Tubman was part of a group that raced to the office of the United States Commissioner following the arrest of Charles Nalle as a suspected fugitive slave. It was Harriet who blocked the stairwell as the marshals tried to move Nalle and commanded the crowd to drag Nalle to the river, even as the marshals open fire (123).
Based on my reading of the sources and the biographies, this is the Harriet Tubman who I found; a historic figure, but a very different person than the one portrayed in the movie.
- For whatever reason, illiteracy, suspicion of others born out of enslavement, serious injury incurred as a youth, or personality, Harriet Tubman was a lone wolf who operated by herself. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman worked on the margins of society that meant she left behind few eyewitnesses in a position to speak about her exploits and a slender paper trail.
- In some ways, calling her the Black Moses robs Tubman of her militancy. The Biblical Moses acted as God’s agent when he led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, not as a freedom fighter. Tubman not only led people to freedom, but she was willing and able to fight, as she demonstrated in Troy. On the other hand, Tubman was not a gun-toting revolutionary. Survival on repeated trips into the slave-holding South meant she had to be cautious and calculating.
- I have no idea of the extent of Tubman’s physical disability and its impact on her mental functioning. She was sustained by her religious conviction and what she felt was a personal relationship with God, which was not uncommon in that era.
- The repeated violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by abolitionists in the decade before the Civil War provoked the South’s virulent reaction to this perceived threat to the sanctity of slave property. It undermined the precarious balance between regions established by the United States Constitution and precipitated both the Civil War and emancipation. Tubman, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, contributed to the conditions that produced the impending crisis.
Harriet Tubman has come to represent and personalize the Underground Railroad, in much the same way that Anne Frank represents the European Holocaust and Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are symbols of the African American Civil Rights movement (Sernett, 2007). The movie Harriet, while fictional, will definitely reinforce this.
This essay is based on a chapter in Alan Singer’s book, New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee (SUNY Press, 2018).
Bradford, Sarah (1869). Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses.
Bradford, Sarah (1886). Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People. New York: George R. Lockwood and Son.
Douglass, Frederick (1892/1962). Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892. Reprinted London, UK: Collier Books.
Foner, P., and Taylor, Y. (1999). Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
Larson, K. (2004). Bound for the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine.
Ripley, C. P., ed. (1992). The Abolitionist Papers, Volume 5, The United States, 1859-1865. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Sernett, M. (2007). Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 56-62.
Still, W. (1872). The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia, PA: Porter and Coates.
Illustration: Young Harriet Tubman provided by Library of Congress.