The heroism of Harriet Tubman

First aired on Fresh Air (12/2/12)

Harriet Tubman is a renowned figure, perhaps the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad that brought slaves in the American South to freedom in Canada in the 19th century. But historical research continues to add to our knowledge of her, according to author Rosemary Sadlier. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Sadlier talked about her new book, Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader, and its "larger than life" subject.

harriet-tubman-175.jpgAt first glance, Tubman would not have seemed like leadership material. "She was little," Sadlier told host Mary Ito. "She was, as they would say, plain. She was, like many other enslaved Africans at the time, unable to read or write. And she was afflicted, by the time she was a teenager, with a sleep disorder caused by a head injury that she had suffered at the hands of an overseer."

Yet archival resources indicate that she led as many as 300 people to freedom, in more than 19 rescue missions. Eleven of those missions started and ended in St. Catharines, Ont.

Tubman's intense dedication to the cause of freedom for African slaves was driven by her own experience. She knew first-hand the horrors of slavery. Moreover, when Tubman married she discovered that, because of the last will and testament of her mother's owner, she should have been granted her freedom. "She had essentially lived her life up to that point as a slave when she should not have," Sadlier said.

In her book, Sadlier made a point of focusing on Tubman's experience of slavery as a woman. "I wanted to make sure that the differences between what would happen for a man and what would happen for a woman were outlined," she explained. "Clearly, some of that had to do with sexuality, and their ability to be accessed by anyone, any time. It made it very difficult for them to get away, because sometimes they were much more closely monitored if they were within the home of the owner. It also meant they were responsible for children that they might have emotional ties to and therefore not want to leave."

Sadlier also explained why St. Catharines became a focal point in Tubman's missions. "When the Fugitive Slave Law went into effect, it meant that people could no longer just go to Philadelphia or the northern United States to be free, they had to go further north, and that meant Canada."

There were many possible entry points, but St. Catharines had a couple of advantages. "She wanted to go further inland [from the border], to make it a little bit more difficult for anyone who might be looking for an escaped runaway. She also had a phenomenal contact in St. Catharines, and his name was Reverend Hiram Wilson. With this contact, with his location being a good distance from the border, St. Catharines became an ideal place."

Tubman's involvement in the Underground Railroad has come to overshadow her other achievements. Sadlier pointed out that she also led a military expedition during the American Civil War. "She is the only woman in U.S. -- and likely global -- military history to plan and carry out a manoeuvre during the Civil War where she ended up rescuing 750 people, and seeing about the destruction of Confederate stores, and destroying certain buildings. That is phenomenal."

Though the story of the Underground Railroad is legendary, it was actually the route to freedom for a relatively small number of people. "Some would suggest that as many as 20,000 African Americans became African Canadians," Sadlier said. "Other sources would suggest as many as 100,000. Harriet Tubman herself rescued perhaps 300."

Neverthless, Harriet Tubman remains a significant and inspiring figure. "Her example encouraged others, or people were able to take strength from her example and make themselves free completely on their own."

Harriet Tubman cover.jpg

Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader

by Rosemary Sadlier

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From the publisher:

"Born in the United States and enslaved as a child, Harriet Tubman (circa 1820-1913) is one of the best-known figures connected to the Underground Railroad. Through her knowledge and outdoor survival skills, honed through her unpaid labour in the fields and through the later connections she made in the abolitionist community, Tubman was well poised to command her followers. By her discipline and example, she never lost a 'passenger.'

"Tubman's exploits helped to empower those opposed to slavery and enrage those who supported it. Her success encouraged enslaved Africans to make the brave break for freedom and reinforced the belief held by abolitionists in the potential of black freedom and independence. Referred to as 'General Tubman' due to her contributions to the Underground Railroad and to the Union Army, Tubman's numerous rescue missions ending in Canada helped to build the interest in escape and reinforce the position of Canada as the final stop on the journey to freedom."

Dundurn Press.