CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 31 . . . . April 13, 2012
Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader. (A Quest Biography).
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2012.
190 pp., trade pbk., $19.99.
Tubman, Harriet, 1820?-1913.
Women slaves-United States-Biography.
African American women abolitionists-Biography.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Harriet had a pattern of working to earn enough money to finance travel into slave states during the summer months, followed by attempting rescues in the fall; working during the winter and rescuing in the spring. In November 1856, Harriet returned to the Bucktown [Maryland] area to bring another group to the north. One member of her group was Josiah Bailey who had cost his new owner $1,000 down and $1,000 to be paid later. To learn respect for his new owner, despite being a loyal worker without a behaviour problem, Josiah was flogged on the very first day of his new ownership arrangement. Consequently, Josiah decided to run, joining Bill, Peter Pennington, Eliza Nokey, and one other on board Harriet’s train. A reward of $1,500 was offered for Josiah’s return, $800 for Peter, $300 for Bill, and $1,200 for Harriet Tubman. The reward for Harriet was higher than the others because of the significant losses she had caused slave owners in the area.
Harriet Tubman is a well-known figure in the history of the Underground Railroad that saw escaped slaves led to freedom in northern states and the British colonies in North America. Following the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act in the United States in 1850, no state was safe for a self-freed slave. This situation did not officially change until the Civil War concluded and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proclaimed in December 1865 outlawing slavery and ending the need for the Underground Railroad.
Sadlier knows her subject well having previously written about Tubman in a biography for young readers: Tubman: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: Her Life in the United States and Canada (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1997). Additionally, Sadlier is president of the Ontario Black History Society and is well-versed in both African Canadian and African American history. She shares her knowledge in this biography as she not only details Tubman’s life but explains the history of Blacks in Canada and pays more attention to Tubman’s time in Canada than some other biographies written from a more exclusively American perspective.
While Tubman provided information to Sarah E. Bradford who wrote two biographical works about her during her lifetime, details from her life and experiences are often scarce. Consequently, Sadlier sometimes has to resort to speculation. This in no way takes away from the validity of the biography since many other sources (some of which are named in the book) shed light on the experiences of escaped slaves, the conditions of slaves, the actions of abolitionists and coded messages used on the Underground Railroad. Sadlier avoids fictional dialogue. She makes use of existing documents, including quotations from Tubman given to journalists, information from secret records kept by abolitionist and Underground Railroad participants William Still of Pennsylvania and Thomas Garrett of Delaware, letters from former slaves who settled in Canada, and Canadian census data from 1861 that records the growth of the Black population in the St. Catharines area of Ontario where one in eight residents at this time was an African Canadian. For most of the 1850s, Tubman made St. Catharines, ON, her home base. Lest Canadian readers become smug about Canada’s role as a safe destination for former slaves, Sadlier reminds readers that some abolitionists behaved in condescending manners toward the self-freed newcomers, and segregation of schools in the St. Catharines area continued into the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The biography follows a more-or-less chronological order, starting with Harriet’s birth to slaves in Maryland around 1820. Early on, she was hired out to others as a source of revenue for her owners. She partnered with a free black man, John Tubman, in 1844, but no children were born, perhaps because of a head injury that she sustained in 1835 in the course of aiding a fugitive slave. This injury also left her with narcolepsy. Upon learning that her owners intended to sell her and two of her brothers to a cotton plantation far in the south, Harriet made a brave break for freedom. Drawing upon her survival skills, emboldened by her religious faith and the knowledge that her mother had been kept in slavery contrary to the manumission instructions of her previous owner’s will, and with the assistance of abolitionists, Harriet found freedom in the Philadelphia area. Several chapters recount Tubman’s numerous trips to the south to “conduct” family members and others to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She moved her home base from Canada to Auburn, New York, in the late 1850s. During the American Civil War, she joined the Union side and served as a nurse, scout, and strategist. After the end of slavery, Tubman remained an activist seeking greater equality for all people. She eventually turned over property to her church for the creation of a home for the elderly African Americans and actually lived her last two years there, dying in 1913.
As with other volumes in the “Quest” series, the volume has a detailed chronology recalling highlights from Tubman’s life and times in one column, and events in Canada and the world in a second column. The chronology actually begins in 1604 with the arrival of Mathieu Da Costa, the first free African on Canadian soil. Those interested in African Canadian history will find this chronology especially useful. Sixteen sources are identified in the select bibliography, but additional ones are stated in the text, itself. The index is serviceable. Black-and-white photographs, reproductions, and one map showing “Harriet’s Escape Routes” provide appropriate accompanying illustrative material. One small complaint with the text is Sadlier’s tendency to repeat material.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Toronto’s Ryerson University with liaison duties in History, English and Caribbean Studies.
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