Historical Figures in Profile: Harriet Tubman


The Life and the Stories, by UMB Women´s Studies professor Jean M. Humez.

The cover of Harriet Tubman

MiMi Yeh

Of all the abolitionist figures in American history, Harriet Tubman features as one of the most prominent and poignant of all. Born into slavery in Maryland around 1820, Tubman eventually led 300 people to freedom in the north via the Underground Railroad, herself having escaped to Canada at the age of 30.

A recent biography written by UMB Women’s Studies Professor Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, sets out to sort out the myth from the reality. For example, it is whimsically put forth that, in her own 1849 escape, Tubman followed the North Star, allowing it to guide her to the safety of the Northern states when, in reality, she was given aid from a white woman in a nearby neighborhood. Humez’s book, culled from manuscripts and primary source material, is considered to be the first major biography on Tubman written since 1943.

Humez studies Tubman’s role as a public figure and how her contemporaries perceived her. Though Tubman was illiterate, there were a number of works published within Tubman’s lifetime concerning her experiences. Humez points to the sources, critiquing which elements can be attributed to Tubman and what was embroidered by biographers compiling works derived from her oral history.

“Between 1936 and 1938, the federal Works Projects Administration employed interviewers to conduct 2,194 interviews with former slaves, two-thirds of whom were 80 years old at the time of the interview,” Humez writes. She refers to these as “mediated interviews” although they were based on notes scribbled down during a session, which, when published, could be distorted because of race, social class, and “translations” of what the storyteller was actually trying to convey.

Humez also focuses on the context of the interviewee, stringently examining what could be considered Tubman’s own political and social agenda. Of course her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad places her in the category of an activist, but she also saw herself as a women’s rights advocate. Tubman participated as a spy and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War and fought against discrimination in the North. Humez presents her as a complex, compelling historical figure who provided a cross-cultural role model for women, African Americans, and abolitionists alike.

Humez is not a newcomer to the world of publishing. She has also authored Mother’s First-Born Daughters, a book exploring the relationship between women and the Shaker religion, which believes that God is capable of male and female incarnations, and she is the editor of Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Humez has made a goal of examining gender and the role of women.

Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories is available from the University of Wisconsin Press.