False Harriet Tubman quote an insult to people in slavery – and to Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in the United States in about 1820. In 1849 she escaped. Over the next decade she became one of the country’s most prominent anti-slavery activists, helping to free many others – including her parents – and earning her the title “Black Moses”.

Today, Tubman is still an icon of freedom. An image often shared on Facebook attributes this quote to her:  “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

But a 2008 article in Maxwell Perspective, a magazine by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in the US, argues that the quote is not by Tubman.

Essay on 2008 Clinton-Obama presidential primary

The confusion began when feminist writer Robin Morgan updated her 1970 essay “Goodbye to All That” during the 2008 US Democratic Party’s primary presidential candidate race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Morgan supported Clinton, and in the essay challenged other women who did not.

She wrote: “Let a statement by the magnificent Harriet Tubman stand as reply. When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, she replied bitterly, ‘I could have saved thousands – if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’”

The implication was that women who didn’t support Clinton were similarly enslaved, and didn’t know it.

Quote from a work of fiction

But experts on Tubman quickly questioned the quote. None of them could find it in primary sources written during her life. (Tubman herself was illiterate.)

One expert was Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history and African American studies at Maxwell School.

“My impression is that this is a late 20th century quote from a fictionalised account of Tubman’s life,” Sernett told history blogger Ralph Luker, who first queried the quote.

‘Quote entirely made up’

The US-based fact-checking site Snopes has checked the quote and rated the claim that it is by Tubman as false.

Snopes quotes historian and Tubman scholar Kate Clifford Larson: “There is no original quote for this. This quote was entirely made up, and became popularised starting sometime in the 1990s.

“There is no documentation, nor historical basis for this quote.”

Did Tubman ‘free a thousand slaves’?

More than this, at meetings in 1858 and 1859 Tubman repeatedly said she had personally rescued 50 to 60 people from slavery. So she would never have said she “freed a thousand slaves”.

Historians reckon she directly freed about 70 slaves, although more freed themselves with the help of instructions she left behind.

Why it matters

Is it possible that Tubman could have said something similar? Probably not. She had been a slave, and knew the horrors of slavery. People who are slaves are fully aware of their condition and its injustices.

“Enslaved people resisted their condition in countless ways, large and small,” says historian Dr W Caleb McDaniel of Rice University in the US.

“If they were not able to attain freedom, it was not because they didn’t want it or because (as the fake Tubman quote would have it) they ‘did not know they were slaves’. It was because powerful forces were arrayed against them.”

Victims of human trafficking know they are not free

McDaniel says he worries that the fake Tubman quote “could have the same ‘red herring’ effect in conversations about modern trafficking”.

It encourages people who quote and read it to “believe that the only thing standing between modern slaves and freedom is knowledge, self-awareness, education, and a willingness to actively dissent”.

But this, McDaniels says, “comes uncomfortably close to the paternalistic idea that those who somehow ‘choose’ not to be freed or don’t ‘know’ they are slaves must tacitly consent to their own exploitation”. – Mary Alexander (25/01/19)


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