By Nicholas Maurice Young, Ph. D.
Harriet Tubman is considered one of the greatest liberators to ever walk the planet. As many of us have been told, she rescued hundreds of slaves from Southern plantations, and delivered them to freedom in Northern States and Canada. At least, this is the story that I was told.
As a child, I remember learning about Ms. Tubman, and her amazing accomplishment. I, and my fellow elementary school classmates were told that Ms. Tubman traveled with her Underground Railroad (UGRR) passengers through the South, and into the North during the night. To be sure, while our teacher was right to tell us about Ms. Tubman’s amazing story, she was incorrect to make us think that Ms, Tubman rescued at least 300 slaves, and achieved her tremendous feats without help from others, or the benefits of a managed social structure. To be sure, the fuller story about this amazing woman is more complex than this elementary school interpretation of her story.
However, to gain a better understanding of Tubman, and the ways in which she accomplished her legendary feats, it is important to know a little about her background before she migrated to upstate New York, the eventual place of her burial. As Historian Kate Clifford Larson states (Larson 2004: xvii) Tubman, who was enslaved on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, spent much of her adult life suffering from epileptic seizures that came as a result of a blow to the head by an angry overseer. She appeared to recognize at an early age that establishing the “right” relationships could serve useful to her later in life. With the assistance of an organized group of contacts she made during her childhood and early adult years, and the help of the North Star in the sky, she escaped from bondage when she was 27. According to Larson (2004: xvii), Tubman “relied upon a long-established, intricate, and secretive web of communication and support among African Americans to effect her rescues.” Over the next ten years, she developed a web of interracial associations across at least 5 states that would help assist her in helping at least 70 or more enslaved actors find their way to freedom.
Tubman built her network through two primary experiences. First, like many of her enslaved comrades, she became accustomed to being “hired out” by her owner to work at another plantation. This practice often led to many enslaved actors traveling back and forth between plantations. It was during one of these visits that she received her near fatal blow. The accident also had another consequence. As Historian Kate Clifford Larson states, “The head injury also coincided with an explosion of religious enthusiasm and vivid imagery” that was rooted in Methodist teachings. Tubman believed that these episodes allowed her to predict the future. This behavior created in the minds of some that she had spiritual powers, and often brought her closer to those whom she encountered during her “hired out days” that shared similar religious beliefs. Eventually, she gained the trust of the plantation owner, as he allowed her to hire out her skills after paying the owner a set wage for the year. This process may have led to her discovering the importance of assembling a network to escape her situation.
The second, and perhaps most important experience that allowed her to see how building a network of trusted relationships could aid her efforts to free herself and others, came from her work on a timber gang. It was this experience that exposed her to the secret communication networks that were the province of black watermen and other free and enslaved blacks. While she interacted in this exclusively male world, she learned what they learned—the safe places, the routes that each took to travel to and from each community, the sympathetic whites that these men knew, and the dangers that these men learned about from their travels. Taken together, these experiences helped Tubman build her network of trusted individuals and information that helped her along her path of freeing others. To better understand this, please consider the following.
The night that Tubman escaped to freedom she was helped by an unnamed white woman, whom she had met during her previous travels. Later in her journey, she was aided by another white woman who some believe was a Quaker, because “it was Quakers who gave escaping slaves the most aid” (Larson 2004: 84). Although not every Quaker was as sympathetic to fugitives, many were critical in providing social and financial resources to those in need and in “providing a groundswell of activism to end slavery throughout the young nation, in addition to establishing a loose network of like-minded individuals who could be tapped to help freedom seekers find their way north and provide support and shelter once they arrived” (Larson 2004:84). Thus, Tubman became exposed to an “existing local network of abolitionists and others, including free blacks and other slaves, who were willing to help slaves make their way to freedom” which was “functioning well on the Eastern Shore by the time Tubman took her liberty.” (2004: 84).
Tubman eventually made her way to Philadelphia, where she connected with William Still, Conductor of the Philadelphia UGRR station. She and Still eventually traveled to Albany, New York, where they met up with Stephen Myers, who then directed her to Frederick Douglass in Rochester. It was because of Douglass, and his association with the Women’s Rights Movement, that she eventually met several others who served as agents and friends of the UGRR in New York City: J. Miller McKim, Robert Purvis, Edward M. Davis, Lucretia and James Mott; the Mott sisters, and Myers, John H. Hooper, and others in Albany; and Samuel J. May and J.W. Loguen of Syracuse (Larson 2004: 94). Ultimately, the communication network that functioned between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, and between Talbot, Dorchester, and Caroline Counties, was dependent upon people Douglass and Tubman both knew. Through her association with Still and Lucretia Mott—a Quaker and abolitionist, whom often “provided for Tubman’s financial and physical needs,” (Larson 2004:94) Tubman gained access to Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall, Allen and Maria Agnew, John and Hannah Cox, Martha Coffin Wright (Lucretia’s sister from Auburn, New York), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Taken together, these actors helped organize the first women’s rights convention (Larson 2004: 107).
Tubman used these contacts, the communications network that she developed from her experience with the African American lumbermen, and the knowledge that she received from her experience traveling through the swamps of Maryland to make at least 13 successful trips back to Maryland to free family members and friends (Larson 2004; Bordewich 2005).
A few years ago, I published an article about Ms. Tubman titled, Even Superheroes Need a Network: Harriet Tubman and the Rise of Insurgency in the New York State Underground Railroad that provided a social-capital interpretation into how Ms. Tubman managed her network contacts to rescue her family and friends from bondage on a Maryland plantation. In the article, my co-authors and I did something that was never done: We put together the network that Ms. Tubman used to rescue her family and friends. We also developed a way to quantify her impact in her network. We attempted to tell a more complete story about the greatness of that incredible woman. She was a Superhero because she did something that most of us cannot do. I call her a Superhero mainly because she is one of the baddest muthafuckas that I know about that recognized that she was the baddest muthafucka that she knew about.