Feeding a need to know real Harriet Tubman

Author's talk lures residents seeking answers about Shore heroine

Postcard: Cambridge

February 15, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

Despite being one of the most admired women in American history, Harriet Tubman left little evidence of her birth on Maryland's Eastern Shore. That mystery has baffled people in the very communities where she spent two decades in involuntary servitude and subsequent years spiriting away Dorchester County slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Consequently, Tubman is celebrated in folklore, looming as large as Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett, but here at her birthplace, remaining a figure only partially formed, like a ghost on the landscape.

Until now.

Earlier this month, a very soft-spoken, 45-year-old, white New England historian named Kate Larson came to Cambridge, telling dozens of previously unheard stories about Tubman's life and times on the Eastern Shore. For the first time, the folkloric Tubman came to life in three dimensions, appearing in the memory of specific times and places -- in familiar houses, fields, shops, roads, swamps and woods -- around her native land.

"For so long, this story has not been told," said Vernetter Pinder, an African-American elementary school teacher who came to The Place on Race bookstore on a Saturday morning to meet Larson and give her a hug. "People are begging for this kind of information. Kate is just an inspiration."

In a presentation in the City Hall chambers, Larson shared highlights from seven years of research as a Tubman biographer. She left dozens of new primary sources -- old letters, diaries, court testimony, unpublished interviews and courthouse records collected from Canada to South Carolina. She wowed audiences with meticulous accounts of Tubman's life here and sold out copies of her new biography, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine Books, $26.95).

"I know there is much more information out there," she said. "We just have to do more research. I encourage everyone to keep looking."

Building on a legacy

Why Tubman's legacy has not been better preserved in Dorchester County, locals say, may be a matter of selective memory in a community where descendants of former slave-holders still live among descendants of former slaves. But with recent booming interest in African-American history and the Underground Railroad, in particular, the potential for tourism based on Tubman's legacy has people eager to map the American heroine's past.

"We already know there are many, many people who want to come here to see, feel, and, in some way, experience Harriet Tubman's life," said Natalie Chabot, director of Dorchester County Department of Tourism, which co-sponsored Larson's appearance in Cambridge. "It's unfortunate that more wasn't done in the past, but we are now working on a strategic plan to evaluate resources here so we can protect and preserve property and make sure the history's not lost. We still have a great opportunity."

Among those now relying on Larson's work is Barbara Mackey, leader of a National Park Service study that will likely propose the creation of national heritage sites dedicated to Tubman. After Mackey met with Larson a little more than a year ago, the park service hired Larson as a consultant. "She has been very helpful in getting us grounded," Mackey said.

During her appearance in Cambridge, Larson, who will begin teaching at Simmons College in Boston in the fall, separated fact from legend.

* Although Tubman has often been hailed as fearless, Larson believes Tubman actually experienced great fear on her journeys. But by combining that fear with religious faith, she became extraordinarily skilled at planning her escapes with runaway slaves.

* Contrary to legend, Tubman did not have narcolepsy, but most likely suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy caused by a severe head injury sustained during an attack by an overseer of a Dorchester County plantation. That, Larson said, would explain the auras, seizures and intense religiosity Tubman experienced throughout her life.

* John Tubman, her first husband, was not a lout, as he has often been painted. Although he did remarry after Tubman's initial escape, Larson said, he took an enormous risk, as a free black man, in marrying her in the first place. "He gets a pretty bad rap in some of the children's books," she said. "But I believe they were deeply in love. For a free black man to marry a slave woman was a serious decision. It was not an arranged marriage, and it would have been done with great trepidation."

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