Story at a glance

  • Visits recently doubled at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland.
  • Harriet Tubman is famous for her brave rescues of dozens of slaves, but she may have had wider impact in her later years.
  • Living into her mid-90s, Tubman was an advocate for African-American girls and the elderly, spent time with Susan B. Anthony and spoke for women's suffrage, as well as ran a home for people in need.
  • A plan to put her on the $20 bill and replace Andrew Jackson, an unrepentant slaveholder, has been delayed for six years and may not happen at all.

The biopic “Harriet” — whose star Cynthia Erivo is already earning Oscar buzz — is renewing audiences’ interest in the woman heralded for saving dozens of slaves.

At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland, weekend visitor counts doubled year-over-year in the weeks before and after the premiere of the movie.

“Many guests are seeing the movie and becoming inspired to learn more about Tubman by visiting the park and other significant sites in her homeland,” says Dana Paterra, park manager.

Paterra says the movie inspires audiences by showing how an ordinary person did extraordinary things.

“She came from bondage, was illiterate in the traditional sense; she experienced mental and physical abuse from a young age; and she suffered from debilitating seizures caused by a head injury,” she says. “Yet her accomplishments had a positive impact on our nation.”

The movie’s lessons are particularly pertinent today, says Meghan Martinez, a professor of history at Florida State University.

“The audience learns the importance of exercising bravery in seemingly impossible circumstances,” Martinez says. More importantly, however, the movie shows that black people were active participants in their own lives and were constantly resisting enslavement.

“I think that is particularly important because you have people like Kanye West in the public eye saying things like ‘slavery was a choice,’” Martinez says. “That notion undermines the systematic legal and physical oppression African Americans faced in the antebellum period and also erases the reality that African Americans did make choices every single day to resist enslavement.”

The movie only shows her first chapter. Living into her mid-90s, Tubman advocated for the education of African-American girls, housing for aging African Americans and women’s right to vote.

Those who study her say that her legacy goes beyond freeing slaves and into all efforts to eliminate oppression and promote equality. She spent her life making the world better, and in the process she left a road map others could follow. For example, she died before women were finally given the right to vote, but she spent time with Susan B. Anthony and others who worked for that cause.

Tubman’s contributions inspire archeologist and Syracuse professor Douglas V. Armstrong. Armstrong, who studies Tubman and has conducted archeological studies of her home and property, says she not only freed herself, but went back time and time again to free others.

“That, in itself, is remarkable,” he said. “But there is a chapter two which probably had more impact.”

Armstrong studies her house and property. The fact that she, an emancipated black woman, could even purchase property is also amazing, he says. Tubman purchased the property from her friend, U.S. Senator William Seward.

Martinez says Tubman represents “black agency and autonomy.”

After teaching college courses for 10 years, Martinez says all of her students are familiar with Tubman, but few know about her additional contributions to society.

Social networks

Her heroic actions drew in many affluent Northern whites with whom she became friends. Tubman developed friendships with luminaries like Susan B. Anthony and influential women like Eliza Wright Osborne.

“Many folks in the 1850s were enamored with her,” he said. “She became a known person with a photographic memory that could retell graphic details and she delivered it with believability.”

Armstrong believes her authenticity was appealing. She never asked for anything for herself. Her requests were always selfless.

“She relied on friendships and chose them well,” Armstrong said. “She was able to develop a network of support and through that was able to support others in need.”

The white people wanted to help Tubman, but if they gave her money she would just turn around and give it away, Armstrong explains.

“We often give credit to people like Abraham Lincoln for freeing the slaves,” Martinez says. “But Harriet Tubman is an example of the ways in which black people worked to free themselves from slavery — both literally and through political activism.”

Tubman and others shared their own personal traumatic stories about slavery abuse with white Northerners to elicit empathy.

Martinez believes that Tubman’s endless empathy drove her to continue helping others even after slavery ended.

“Her empathy likely led to many of her decisions,” she said. “Including the decision to sacrifice her own safety to free others, returning to the South again and again, and her decision to help open the Tubman Home for Aged & Indigent Negroes later in her life. She was always taking care of people.”

$20 bill?

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department planned to feature Harriet Tubman’s image on the $20 bill. Tubman’s image was set to replace former President Andrew Jackson and bump his image to the back of the bill by 2020.

This summer, those efforts were put on hold when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the bill change would be delayed by six years for technical reasons, and may not even include Tubman’s image at all, according to a report by The New York Times.

The delay discourages Armstrong, who is a strong supporter of the movement to get Tubman’s image on the bill. He said the image on the bill includes clothing that was found in her household, such as star buttons that represent the fact that she followed the North Star to freedom.

Martinez hopes Tubman’s image will end up on the $20 bill, but she has her doubts.

“The men who currently occupy our currency are American icons, but many are also unrepentant slave owners and unabashed racists,” she said. “Andrew Jackson was both — and he made himself rich off the genocidal policy of ‘Indian Removal.’ It would be nice to have currency free from that sort of baggage.”

Published on Nov 29, 2019