November 1st sees the release of the long-awaited film, “Harriet,” loosely based on the life and work of the famous abolitionist and civil rights pioneer, Harriet Tubman. Of course, Tubman is best known for her work with the Underground Railroad, the informal but extensive network of guides and safe-houses that helped conduct fugitive Southern slaves to freedom in the North, in Canada, and free territories.
Advanced word has reached us here at the Buzzkill Institute that, like most films, “Harriet” mixes history and legend, myth and memory, and fact and fiction. We hope to bring you more shows on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but for this Quote or No Quote episode, we’ve chosen the famous:
“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”
This is attributed to Harriet Tubman, and is bound to appear increasingly in social media during the next few months as the film is seen audiences across the country.
This “quote” is interesting to people like me because it carries with it a few of the biggest warning signs of a false attribution. That’s right, there’s no good evidence that Harriet Tubman ever said it.
First of all, Tubman scholars have found no instance of it in the various biographies and publications from the 19th century that claim to be based on interviews with her. (There are several problems with these 19th century sources, but we’ll have to cover those in a later, fuller, Tubman show.)
And chronology is important here. Not only are there no instances of this statement from Tubman’s own lifetime, it does not seem to appear anywhere until the early 1990s. Like so many others, this misattributed quote started showing up in some collections of writings by important African Americans near the end of the 20th century. A lot of these are most likely “orphaned” quotations – those that were written or said by someone relatively unknown, but since they sounded like they could have been said by a prominent hero from history, they get attached to that person. This happens all the time with Churchill, Lincoln, and Einstein “quotes.” It’s as if people won’t pay attention to a quote or sentiment (no matter how interesting or inherently true and meaningful), unless it is followed by the name of a well-known historical figure, especially someone considered highly moral and spiritual.
There’s also no evidence that Harriet Tubman ever claimed to have freed _thousands_ of slaves. Again, we’ll cover this in a later, fuller, show on the Underground Railroad. But scholars of the range of slave freedom movements and organizations have concluded that Tubman directly freed about seventy slaves by conducting them on the underground railroad, and that she provided essential information and directions to probably fifty more slaves who were trying to escape.
Freeing one slave was extremely dangerous, and to do it repeatedly was a tremendously brave thing for one individual to do. So the fact that the number of slaves that Tubman freed was somewhere around 150 or so (and not “thousands”) should not be taken as any kind of criticism. But, as so often happens, numbers are the easiest thing to inflate in the retelling of stories, quotations, and sayings. And that’s what probably happened here.
Finally, the second sentence in the quote, “I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves,” is definitely not a 19th century sentiment or conception. Anti-slavery rhetoric of that period was full of images of suffering, using all sorts of allusions to Old Testament slavery, Roman slavery, and, of course, American slavery. Slaves were often depicted as praying for salvation, yearning to become free in this life or the next, and hoping for a saviour. There’s no evidence for the idea that slaves were so fully entrenched in the slave system that they didn’t realize they were enslaved (either in reality or in metaphor). If anything, modern scholarship has proven one thing over and over — that slaves were very often the agents of their own eventual freedom. Of course, the slave system and the culture of slavery was so complete that it took many heroes like Harriet Tubman to work directly and forcefully against it. They were essential in helping some slaves to gain their freedom, and to redeem the humanity that they all knew in their souls they possessed but was being denied to them.
Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History
Harriet Tubman is one of America’s most beloved historical figures, revered alongside luminaries including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History tells the fascinating story of Tubman’s life as an American icon. The distinguished historian Milton C. Sernett compares the larger-than-life symbolic Tubman with the actual “historical” Tubman. He does so not to diminish Tubman’s achievements but rather to explore the interplay of history and myth in our national consciousness. Analyzing how the Tubman icon has changed over time, Sernett shows that the various constructions of the “Black Moses” reveal as much about their creators as they do about Tubman herself.
Three biographies of Harriet Tubman were published within months of each other in 2003–04; they were the first book-length studies of the “Queen of the Underground Railroad” to appear in almost sixty years. Sernett examines the accuracy and reception of these three books as well as two earlier biographies first published in 1869 and 1943. He finds that the three recent studies come closer to capturing the “real” Tubman than did the earlier two. Arguing that the mythical Tubman is most clearly enshrined in stories told to and written for children, Sernett scrutinizes visual and textual representations of “Aunt Harriet” in children’s literature. He looks at how Tubman has been portrayed in film, painting, music, and theater; in her Maryland birthplace; in Auburn, New York, where she lived out her final years; and in the naming of schools, streets, and other public venues. He also investigates how the legendary Tubman was embraced and represented by different groups during her lifetime and at her death in 1913. Ultimately, Sernett contends that Harriet Tubman may be America’s most malleable and resilient icon.