April 14, 2015

[Interview] Kate Clifford Larson: Helping Put Harriet Tubman on the Map

  • By: Sophia Dembling
Written by Sophia Dembling

Kate Clifford Larson is the author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.

Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., was intrigued by Harriet Tubman when her daughter studied the famous abolitionist in elementary school. But when she looked for a biography of Tubman written for adults, the most recent one Larson could find was from the 1940s.

Thus began her career as a Tubman scholar.

Larson's book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero came out in 2003, and she has since become a go-to scholar, consulting with Eastern seaboard states developing Harriet Tubman sites and, recently, with HBO about a miniseries co-produced with and starring Viola Davis.

Maryland, where Tubman was born, now has a completed Harriet Tubman byway, and a state park is in development. In addition, an Underground Railroad National Historic Park, signed into law in December 2014, will have sites in Maryland and Auburn, New York, where Tubman lived out her later years.

As sites focused on Tubman and the Underground Railroad take shape, we caught up with her to talk about the work she and others have done to make sure Tubman's real story is told.

How much may we credit you for growing interest in Harriet Tubman as a historical figure?

I think my biography and other scholarly biographies helped make her more of a serious historical character in the minds of more people. And the local people in Maryland and New York have been pushing for this for a very long time. It's also because of their efforts, and not giving up, and demanding and demanding and demanding.

How difficult was researching Tubman's life?

When I started my dissertation, some people said, “You're not going to find anything because Harriet was a slave and she didn't read or write.” But enslaved people were property, and people kept records about their property.  Still, the research was painstaking. It took about ten years going through libraries, archives, private collections, visiting courthouses. It was following all the breadcrumbs.

And I haven't stopped researching. The Internet has made it so much easier. I Google her name every day. We've found more names of people she helped rescue. Not more trips, but people who were on those trips and what happened on those trips.

We've found out what happened to some members of her family. We have more information about her life in Auburn, New York. The folks in Auburn wrote about her all the time. Things would come up in newspapers -- that she had taken in an orphan bear and was raising it, that she rode a bicycle -- all kinds of humanizing details. It's been a lot of fun to find out more about her everyday life, her character, her humor, her trials and tribulations.

Larson's ongoing research on Tubman has shed new light on the iconic abolitionist.

And some people have come forward with more private collections. It's all just added to what we know, particularly about her Underground Railroad work. We're more confident in the numbers that we put together. We used to think it was 300 people in 19 trips; we now know it was 70 people in 12 or 13 trips.

How did you identify relevant sites?

You have to go back to property ownership and then figure out who owns the property now, and where that property is. That's very time-consuming. There are other researchers who were doing that work too. I collaborated with others so we weren't duplicating efforts.

An Underground Railroad journal written by Sidney Howard Gay [an abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent in New York] was rediscovered in 2006 or '07. He wrote five pages in his journal on Tubman. Eric Foner used the journal to write Gateway to Freedom. It's a huge treasure trove of remarkable information. He revealed the network of the underground, the names of agents.

The descendants of Thomas Garrett from Delaware, a famous Quaker Underground Railroad agent,  are alive and involved in the research. And descendants of [abolitionists] Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright are around. So are descendants of William Lloyd Garrison.

But descendants of freedom seekers who know their family history are fewer and farther between. They did not discuss their past. Once emancipation came, they said, “This is a new life, we're not talking about that.” I've had people contact me and say, “I read the name of my ancestor in your book. I didn't know.”

A lot of the byway and park is natural area. Can you describe something about what the experience will be for people traveling the byway?

There are very few structures left. But not having the structures almost makes it more authentic to me, because these are the landscapes Tubman traversed. She worked outdoors, she walked across these landscapes, she labored there, she hid there, she experienced tragedy there. To contemplate that and feel it when you're looking across a field... How do you cross a 300-acre field in the winter, when all the crops are mowed down? And in the woods, how do you see to move when you can't carry a lantern?

Harriet Tubman's Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York.

Practically every site along the byway has a sign. On the website, you can click on the different sites and learn about them there. And there's an audio guide you can download and have in the car, to hear the stories as you drive. I consulted with the firm that did that and they did a fantastic job.

Is the goal that people will learn about Tubman as they go along, or will it be more meaningful if they learn first and then travel?

I think they can learn it on the way. And they're going to learn about the historical fabric of the community that she was born and raised in, and worked in. They'll experience other cultural aspects of the community that she lived in.

The experience represents the black communities that were both free and enslaved. There are some structures, tangible pieces of evidence of pre-existing communities that she knew, that loved her and nurtured her. Some of them are in desperate need of preservation, some are being preserved. The money for this kind of thing is drying up and it's really difficult.

These African-American historical sites are at great risk. The communities come together, but they don't have the resources, and they're competing with a lot of other organizations.

What structures are preserved?

Along the byway, there's a placed called Christ Rock, outside Cambridge on the way to Church Creek, where they tell the story of the stampede of slaves. In 1857, a group of 28 enslaved people and another group of 16 -- who took 20 children, including infants, with them -- ran for freedom. This is unheard of in the annals of slave history. They all made it to freedom. It was a huge event; it made the national news.

Christ Rock is a historic black community, existing before the Civil War, and they built a school in 1866. The community has come together and preserved the little school, a one-room schoolhouse, and they're now renovating the church and the graveyard. The byway has helped; they've been able to apply for funds and been very successful.

Malone's church in Madison is one of my favorites. It's in a very bad state, it needs preservation money immediately. It was created in 1864. Tubman lived there, she knew those people. The church there is the second building, but they have a rich, rich story to tell. The graveyard has graves from the late 1860s and early 1870s. There are black Civil War soldiers in that cemetery. It's a magical place, a very important site that needs to be preserved.

Harriet Tubman's grave (left), Tubman's Home in Auburn, New York (right).

What's happening with Harriet Tubman's home in Auburn, New York?

The National Park Service is in Auburn right now, laying the groundwork. I've worked with the Tubman home in the past as a consultant. It's owned by the AME Zion Church and […] they’re going to be in a partnership with the park service.

Tubman's house is still not open. I wish they could hurry up and finish that because it's really moving to get inside there. You can just feel her there; it is just remarkable.
They also need to take down the library they have there [on the property] and the visitor center and return the property to what it was in 1900.

Syracuse University has done archaeological field work there every year for 10 years and uncovered many, many artifacts and cultural resource materials. The landscape architecture school at Cornell has been studying the ancient apple trees to figure out how we can get them to survive and propagate so we can recreate her orchard. Her church is waiting to be restored.

Did you know when you started researching Harriet Tubman that she would turn into a career?
I was just laughing with some friends about that. I think it's probably coming to a close fairly soon, as soon as these parks come off the ground. It would be great if someone else came along to continue the research.

Sophia Dembling is author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.


Applications for the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund grant program are due December 15, 2021.

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