A century after Harriet Tubman died, scholars try to separate fact from fiction

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - Board member William Jarmon walks past portraits of Harriet Tubman in the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge, Md. on March 5. There are plans for a national historic trail and a state park honoring Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The groundbreaking takes place this weekend on the 100th anniversary of her death.

Go to Cambridge, which remains a sleepy town, and you’ll find the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, where a local art teacher has painted a colorful mural of Tubman, and photographs of her adorn the wall. Docents and volunteers tell stories of the black community’s connection to their heroine.

(Anonymous/Associated Press) - This photograph released by the Library of Congress and provided by Abrams Books shows Harriet Tubman in a photograph dating from 1860-75. 
Tubman was born into slavery, but escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, and provided valuable intelligence to Union forces during the Civil War.Her name was invoked here in the 1940s to raise money for an ambulance for use in the black part of town. Later, the black community began celebrating Harriet Tubman Day around Juneteenth on the grounds of Bazzel Church, an old wooden edifice where blacks worshipped during slavery.
With the beginning of construction on the visitors center at the new state park in Dorchester, excitement about Tubman is palpable.
“It all comes together in a way to celebrate the courage of a person who is an inspiration,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who has also been a forceful backer of naming a national park after Tubman.
One place that transports visitors back a century and a half is the Bucktown Village Store, which is owned by Dorchester natives Susan and Jay Meredith, who operate the tourism business Blackwater Paddle and Pedal — renting out bicycles, canoes and the like. The Merediths are the fourth generation of their family to operate the general store, which they call the site of “the first known act of defiance in the life of Harriet Tubman.”
Step onto the wooden porch and through the heavy door and see shelves lined with artifacts: chamber pots, wooden duck decoys, old coffee cans. Beneath the glass are metal slave tags purchased on eBay and heavy shackles.
There is also a rusted metal weight, which Susan Meredith holds in her hand as she tells a story about the woman she calls “Minty.” “She was being leased out to farmers so she was working in the flax field. She said her hair looked like a bushel of flax. Master comes and says, ‘Minty go to the store.’ Like any woman, she said, ‘Ain’t no way I’m going with my hair looking like this.’ She put her Misses shawl on her head and headed to the store.”
It’s hard to believe an enslaved woman would drape her head with a shawl that belonged to her owner, but Meredith energetically continues her story.
Minty is in the store, and an overseer comes in chasing a enslaved boy who has walked off the field. Tubman refuses to help the overseer detain the boy. (On this point historians agree.) The overseer hurls the lead weight, “accidentally” hitting Tubman in the head, Meredith says with conviction, though there is some dispute about whether the incident was an accident.
“If this park revolves around inspiration and family and tradition, you’ll get everyone to come. But if you tell the things we already know about slavery, you’re not going to have many people,” Meredith says. “People aren’t going to come to be sad.”
But there is sadness in Bradford’s telling; she wrote that Tubman’s “master ... in an ungovernable fit of rage threw a heavy weight at the unoffending child, breaking in her skull, and causing a pressure upon her brain.”
Moving beyond happy children’s stories to look slavery in the face and conjure up the fearlessness Tubman must have possessed is — in fact — the draw, says Morgan Dixon, the co-founder of GirlTrek, a District-based organization that promotes fitness among black women.
The image of Tubman walking away from slavery undergirds GirlTrek’s “We are Harriet” walk on the anniversary of her death. More than 13,000 women, many walking alone, will participate.
The idea was born five years ago when Dixon got in her car and drove to the Eastern Shore looking for signs of Tubman.
Dixon ended up at the Bucktown store. She sat inside, thinking about Tubman getting knocked in the head and later walking through forests. It was there that Dixon began to think of Tubman as a physical being, not a storybook character — a woman who felt fear, pain and unyielding resolve.
“Harriet Tubman was a woman just like us,” Dixon says. “One woman who was radically connected to herself and to God takes it upon herself — with this core value of self reliance — to really walk in the direction of her best life.”
It is this Harriet that Dixon will have in mind as she walks Sunday. It is that Harriet Tubman, redrawn to reflect reality, that historians hope will resonate with people seeking to understand her legacy and the era in which she lived.