Harriet Tubman

Myth, Memory, and History

Harriet Tubman

Book Pages: 424 Illustrations: 88 illustrations ( incl. 9 in color) Published: November 2007

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > U.S. History

Harriet Tubman is one of America’s most beloved historical figures, revered alongside luminaries including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History tells the fascinating story of Tubman’s life as an American icon. The distinguished historian Milton C. Sernett compares the larger-than-life symbolic Tubman with the actual “historical” Tubman. He does so not to diminish Tubman’s achievements but rather to explore the interplay of history and myth in our national consciousness. Analyzing how the Tubman icon has changed over time, Sernett shows that the various constructions of the “Black Moses” reveal as much about their creators as they do about Tubman herself.

Three biographies of Harriet Tubman were published within months of each other in 2003–04; they were the first book-length studies of the “Queen of the Underground Railroad” to appear in almost sixty years. Sernett examines the accuracy and reception of these three books as well as two earlier biographies first published in 1869 and 1943. He finds that the three recent studies come closer to capturing the “real” Tubman than did the earlier two. Arguing that the mythical Tubman is most clearly enshrined in stories told to and written for children, Sernett scrutinizes visual and textual representations of “Aunt Harriet” in children’s literature. He looks at how Tubman has been portrayed in film, painting, music, and theater; in her Maryland birthplace; in Auburn, New York, where she lived out her final years; and in the naming of schools, streets, and other public venues. He also investigates how the legendary Tubman was embraced and represented by different groups during her lifetime and at her death in 1913. Ultimately, Sernett contends that Harriet Tubman may be America’s most malleable and resilient icon.


Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History is an interesting and important book. It forces us to examine the real life of one of our most enduring American heroes. With painstaking research, Sernett illustrates how the mythical Tubman has become so deeply entrenched in American culture. According to Sernett, the idolized image of Tubman will continue to live on, as various interests will continue to use her as their own icon for various struggles. Nevertheless, as he demonstrates in this fascinating book, the real Harriet Tubman was an incredible woman in her own right.” — Jane E. Dabel, Reviews in American History

“[A] rich scholarly text and exciting historiography. . . . Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History is unique in that it examines scholarship, folklore, oral history, and creative works (paintings, sculptures, writings, and film) to present not just the life and image of a historical figure, but to probe the process by which cultural memory gets produced. In the past, a greater number of texts on Tubman have been written for children. However, this volume, along with the three recent biographies Sernett surveys, provides resources for scholarly study so that critics cannot ignore the significance of her life and activism. Sernett offers scholars a model for understanding and appreciating Harriet Tubman within the pantheon of American historical actors.” — DoVeanna S. Fulton Minor, Biography

“Analyzing several of the biographies that have been written about Tubman—including books aimed at children—Sernett shows how the ebb and flow of politics and culture push individuals into obscurity or elevate them into prominence.” — Vanessa Bush, Booklist

“In this wonderful book, Milton C. Sernett examines the composite constructions of Tubman’s image over the past century and a half, and analyzes the diverse political, social, and cultural uses her image served for various constituencies over that time. . . . Sernett captures beautifully the interplay between myth, memory, and history in the constructions of Tubman’s image; his analysis is particularly evocative in the chapters that pertain to the creation of the Tubman myth during her own lifetime.” — William Van Arragon, Canadian Journal of History

“Like other scholars dealing with the creation of memory, Sernett is sensitive to the many ways memory is made. His book includes a rich program of illustrations, ranging from book covers to sculpture as well as chapters on the preservation of Tubman sites and the media’s representation of Tubman. . . . Sernett’s book sheds light on in Tubman’s modern reputation.” — Julie Roy Jeffrey, Civil War History

“Milton Sernett’s exceptionally well-researched Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History underscores Tubman's durability, pliability, resilience and symbolic importance. . . . Sernett succeeds admirably in exposing ‘the heroic and heavily mediated’ Tubman. . . . Sernett nevertheless does not diminish Tubman's importance.” — John David Smith, News & Observer

“Sernett has crafted a meticulous study of Harriet Ross Tubman and the scholarship, oral histories, and cultural records that have both fueled and challenged her status as an American icon, patriot, and resister. . . . The power of the work lies in its rigorous close readings of the contexts, cultural battles, and historical moments that informed the writerly efforts of abolitionists such as Sarah Bradford, journalists like the Auburn resident Earl Conrad, educators like Bessie Cooper Noble, and the artists and writers whose creative genius facilitated important public encounters with Tubman’s legacy. Sernett’s keen attention to the evolution of identity politics and the changing manifestations of racial uplift enables a stirring and informative rereading of Tubman’s multifaceted story, and a heightened awareness of the racialized and gendered components of the often sentimentalized and politicized ‘American’ story.” — Lois Brown, North Carolina Historical Review

“Sernett has successfully tilled the territory that historical memory calls us to enter. Not only has he recovered a significant portion of our past with regard to an important figure, but also he has opened the window on how myths are made, why they do not easily die, and in the end why we must embrace and own the truth about our past. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History is an admirable achievement for a historian, and we should be grateful to Sernett for this valuable work.” — Charles Pete Banner-Haley, Journal of Southern History

“Sernett’s Harriet Tubman is a rich, informative, well-documented study by a noted historian of the African American experience who has written about antislavery activities and African American religion as well as a significant work on the Great Migration.” — Margaret Washington, Journal of African American History

“Sernett’s richly textured study is not foremost a biography but an analysis of the interplay of individual and collective history-making, myth-making, and the cultural memories surrounding Tubman. [A]n impressively researched and fascinating book . . . [that] makes significant contributions to deeper understandings of the place of memory in American history and political culture widely.” — Micki McElya, American Historical Review

“The breadth and depth of Sernett’s research is the book’s most impressive feature. Newspaper accounts, abolitionist speeches, biographies, literature, fine art, film, theatrical productions, the built environment, and material culture all make an appearance here, and Sernett handles each with equal aplomb. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the existence of any piece of Tubmaniana that the author has not managed to excavate, interrogate, and present in this volume. . . . Sernett has written a highly valuable survey of the memory and mythology of Harriet Tubman, one that stands as a fitting complement to the spate of recent biographies.” — K. Stephen Prince, Journal of Historical Biography

“This volume offers a careful study of how Harriet Tubman has become central to current versions of American history. . . . The great value of this account lies in showing just how closely national history aligns with national myth.” — Scott Nesbit, Virginia Quarterly Review

“Using both historical documents and cultural material . . . . Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History explores the relationship between memory and facts; between the powerful American symbol, and five-foot slave named Minty who ran away from her mistress, Eiza Anmn Brodess, in October of 1849 . . . . This is a fascinating work of scholarship as well as a thoughtful study of cultural imagination.” — Heather Shaw, Foreword Reviews

“In this brilliant study, Milton C. Sernett peels back layers of memory regarding both real and imagined events to reveal the fascinating interplay of cultural, political, and social forces that have contributed to Harriet Tubman’s near-mythic status. With graceful prose and nuanced analysis, he describes the literary and artistic productions that have shaped our understanding of Tubman over the past one hundred and fifty years: productions that reflect an ever-evolving process of memory and mythmaking by generations of Americans in pursuit of meaningful cultural and historical icons.” — Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero

“The product of painstaking research, Milton C. Sernett’s book offers a comprehensive description and analysis of the processes by which the historical former slave woman became an iconic figure with shifting and contested significance for multiple audiences during her own long life and into the twenty-first century. In addition to presenting valuable facts for admirers and historians of Harriet Tubman, Milton C. Sernett uses her example to pose vital questions about the functions, varieties, and tenacity of heroic mythmaking in the lives of communities and nations.” — Jean M. Humez, author of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Milton C. Sernett is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and History at Syracuse University. Among his books are African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness and Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration, both also published by Duke University Press, and North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. “Minty” 11

2. “Moses the Deliverer” 41

3. “General Tubman” 73

4. Sarah Bradford’s Harriet Tubman 105

5. Saint, Seer, and Suffragist 131

6. The Apotheosis of “Aunt Harriet” 165

7. Earl Conrad and the Book That Almost Wasn’t 195

8. “Spirits Rising” 225

9. Pride of Place 255

10. Historians Have Their Say 293

Appendix 321

Notes 325

Bibliography 371

Index 395
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4073-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4052-2
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