The most famous abductor on the underground railroad
Sleepy, plain, and illiterate, Harriet Tubman turned her weaknesses to advantages - and saved hundreds
Throughout her early career, she was known to the public only as "Moses." Like the Biblical Moses, she was a rescuer. She credited her success to divine will as she faced bullets and reprisals. Though for us a figure of sentimental lore, in the 1850s, Harriet Tubman was an outlaw.
Born into slavery circa 1825 (the exact date is unknown), sometime in her 20s, Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland. Having received assistance in her flight to Pennsylvania from the Underground Railroad - a consortium of abolitionists and antislavery sympathizers - Tubman soon became an UGRR agent herself. In time, she became the most famous of "abductors."
An Underground Railroad "conductor" provided housing and secret shelter to escaped slaves on their way to liberty. But an "abductor" - by far the more daring task - made clandestine journeys into the slave states to extract willing black freedom-seekers.
Tubman found freedom in the best sense of the word: She discovered an identity. A contemporary said that Tubman was "one of the most ordinary looking of her race, unlettered, no idea of geography [and] asleep half the time." But Tubman turned her apparent disadvantages into strengths: A fugitive, living under the threat of recapture, she discovered that her ordinariness had benefits for a spy. As a woman, she was less conspicuous. As an illiterate, she relied solely upon memory and never carried incriminating documents.
She was masterly at disappearing into the South and establishing contacts with slaves after inspiring their trust. In the decade before the Civil War, she led dozens - by some estimates, hundreds - of slaves to the free Northern states or Canada.
Modern researchers believe that Tubman was narcoleptic - her acquaintances described her as given to inexplicable sleeping spells. But at the height of her fame, tales of Tubman's sleeping spells only enhanced her reputation as a seer who was guided by God.
It seems material for a romantic legend, but it is an established fact that her most prized "abductions" were the liberation of several relatives and finally of her own mother and father. And a final detail completes her mythic reputation: Whereas several UGRR abductors (most of who were white men) served prison time, Harriet Tubman was never caught.
Catherine Clinton's "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" attempts to restore a sense of historical place to the legend. Clinton notes that "Tubman has been maternalized by the elementary school set. The tale of her career ... may have surpassed the folkloric popularity of George Washington's chopping down the cherry tree." While challenging that romanticized view, Clinton has written a lucid, well-researched biography that contextualizes a remarkable life in all its remarkable accomplishment.
The maternalized Tubman has been the subject of innumerable, appropriately nonviolent children's books. But the real Tubman appears to have been a masculine woman who was not opposed to violence in the cause of justice. She was a friend and supporter of John Brown. In fact, though Brown frightened many fellow abolitionists, Tubman procured funds for his ill-fated raid at Harper's Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Tubman participated in the Civil War - as a nurse, yes, but also as a secret agent and military leader of a Union battalion in a raid against the Middleton plantation in South Carolina that freed some 700 slaves.
The tough-minded Tubman was skeptical of Abraham Lincoln as "the Great Emancipator." She had seen firsthand that black Union soldiers received substandard medical care and lower wages than white soldiers. Given a chance to meet the president, she declined. Her attitude softened somewhat, but in her mind Lincoln was never the man John Brown was.
"The Road to Freedom" cannot altogether "demythologize" Tubman - her story is too extraordinary, her symbolism too resonant - but this much is made clear: The woman Tubman became was due in large part to the radical abolitionist movement that encouraged her. Her story is part and parcel of the story of fellow abolitionists, white and black, men like William Lloyd Garrison, Levi Coffin, and Frederick Douglass.
Clinton's book also contextualizes, rather than demythologizes Tubman simply because we never truly know Tubman as an individual. Her intimate feelings and her inner self escape a biographer's art. Tubman crested a wave of history, but she was a lifelong illiterate. She wrote no revealing letters, kept no diaries. Unfortunately for the biographer looking for a familiar touch, her recorded life has almost no personal blemishes. Clinton uncovers a strange story of Tubman possibly "kidnapping" a Northern niece - an 8-year-old girl whom the childless Tubman fell in love with - but the evidence is sketchy.
The major accomplishment of Tubman's old age was the establishment of a charity home outside of New York City, five years before her death in 1913, coincidentally the same year Rosa Parks was born. Tubman's motto was "If you want to taste freedom, keep going." And she kept going. And she never got caught.
• Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C.