On The Road To Harriet Tubman


She was famously naive. Although during her wartime service she repeatedly outmaneuvered and outfoxed Confederates, in 1873 she nevertheless fell victim to two men who promised gold in exchange for greenbacks. After demanding a clandestine midnight meeting, the confidence men beat Tubman, then bound and gagged her and left her for dead in the woods. (The brutal attack outraged the Auburn citizens, who had become proud and protective of their remarkable neighbor.)

In 1903 Tubman donated her charitable home to the A.M.E. Zion Church, which is still involved in maintaining the facility as a museum and visitors’ center and is now working with preservationists to expand its mandate. Groups hope to restore the actual house in which Tubman lived for most of her adult life on property adjacent to the house museum site.

The Reverend Paul G. Carter and his wife, Christine, maintain a strong commitment to preserving Tubman’s memory, and every year they host busloads of visitors making the pilgrimage to Auburn, several hundred of whom gather in special celebration on Memorial Day weekend. The ceremonies begin at the Fort Hill Cemetery, where Tubman was buried with military honors. Prayers, songs, and responsive readings remind those at this graveside that “Moses” still casts her long shadow.

A somber image of Tubman’s face adorns banners in Auburn’s historic district. The plaque on the Cayuga County Courthouse dedicated in her honor in 1914 reminds visitors that she remains one of the most admired African-Americans of her generation—and a favorite daughter. The town is discussing plans to rename a major thoroughfare in her memory.

A.M.E. Zion congregations sponsor candidates for a Miss Harriet Tubman contest, featured in the annual Memorial Day program. Each contestant contributes a statement. In 2000 15-year-old Ondrea Mack confided: “Harriet Tubman was a leader and an inspiration to her people, and it will be an honor to be crowned in her name. I also would consider myself as a leader and not a follower and a role model to other children.” When she won, this title added to her long list of accomplishments: the National Junior Honor Society, a participant in public-speaking contests, a cheerleader as well as a member of her school’s Junior ROTC. This final attribute may take some by surprise, but Tubman’s military talents were famous during her own day, and her role as a warrior fuels contemporary debate.

A popular nineteenth-century print shows Tubman holding a rifle. The visual link between an elementary school heroine and the weapon has caused consternation among educators, and efforts to turn Tubman into some kind of symbol for current battles over gun control erupt regularly. Tubman not only shouldered a rifle when she served with the Union Army but carried a pistol during her travels along the Underground Railroad. This matter-of-fact circumstance should have very little bearing on contemporary political debates, but, again, Tubman casts a long shadow.

Both the Black Panthers and the adherents of nonviolence came to embrace her.

Legend feeds myth, and certain elements of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s created a renewed wave of interest in Tubman, introduced to a new generation as a founding mother of black revolutionaries. This renown led to her becoming embraced by the Black Panthers on the one hand, revered by adherents of nonviolence on the other.


At such a pinnacle of conflicting symbolism, her popularity elicited controversy. Following the release of the National History Standards in 1994, Tubman’s name was frequently invoked as an example of “flaws” associated with guidelines reflecting inclusion and diversity. After protracted debates in which opponents of the standards hammered away at “revisionism,” Harriet Tubman became a particularly sailing to conservative critics. But even as pundits bickered, she continued to blossom within the popular culture. In 2000 I brought home a Harriet Tubman Adventures in Learning play set, which included a figure that represented Harriet, a fugitive mother with a babe in arms, a cabin and a roadside shelter complete with campfire, a “freedom-sign quilt,” a chicken on a spit, and a bloodhound, sniffing at the ground. I might cringe; children don’t. My son tore into the box, and one of his friends marveled: “Cool, a Harriet Tubman action figure.”

Along my travels I have bought Tubman mugs, T-shirts, stamp pins, a comic book, and have even seen a Harriet Big Brainy baby. However, Harriet Tubman’s legacy is not for children only. She represents hope for those seeking escape today from other forms of brutality. Can it be any surprise that domestic-abuse shelters in the United States invoke her name? That volunteers and professionals honor her bravery by engineering rescues of their own?

Since 2000 the U.S. National Park Service has been evaluating sites associated with Tubman as potential additions to the park system. A movement gathers steam to turn Harriet Tubman Day into a national holiday. Public statuary featuring Tubman is popping up all over, from Boston to Battle Creek. And let a hundred Harriets bloom.