Campus Currents

"Moses" Without the Myths

Harriet Tubman

One of the most dramatic recorded slave rescues in American history was sparked by a loaf of bread. On April 27, 1860, Charles Nalle was on his way to the bakery in Troy, N.Y., when he was stopped in the street and arrested. The escaped slave was working as a coachman, hoping to earn enough money to bring his wife and six children to safety in the north. But his former owner had tracked him down, procuring a warrant for Nalle's arrest and return to Virginia. Enter Harriet Tubman, a petite woman known for her fierce devotion to freedom.

While angry crowds gathered outside, Tubman disguised herself and slipped inside the building where Nalle was imprisoned. She helped him escape, once to a waiting boat, and a second time by heaving the injured Nalle into a passing farmer's wagon.

Known as "Moses" for her efforts to lead slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was legendary for her fearlessness and fighting spirit. Kate Clifford Larson '03 first became interested in Tubman when reading a children's biography to her then-10-year-old daughter. But when she went to look for more biographies, she found that children's books portrayed Tubman as a saint, and no adult biography had been published since 1943.

Harriet Tubman

So began her seven-year undertaking: a comprehensive biography that would introduce readers to the real Harriet Tubman. One reason Clifford Larson chose UNH to pursue her doctoral work is that her project was greeted with immediate enthusiasm. "There were lots of naysayers" elsewhere, Clifford Larson says. "I was told it would be too hard to research."

In Massachusetts, Clifford Larson pored over letters from the prominent antislavery Garrison family, which were full of references to Tubman. In Maryland, a courthouse that was supposed to be a dead end-it burned in 1852-was instead a treasure trove: The courthouse clerk had decided to catch up on work at home, and had taken the Tubman family file home with him.

The resulting thesis was published this year by Ballantine Books. Bound for the Promised Land tells the story of the real Harriet Tubman. "She was not a pacifist," says Clifford Larson. "She felt you needed to strike a crushing blow, that you weren't going to win by preaching peace. It was a war."

Clifford Larson's own family has been touched by her research. Her two daughters, now 14 and 17, have grown up with Tubman, often sharing information about her life in their classes at school. "She's like the third child in our family," says Clifford Larson, who has become good friends with a number of Tubman's descendants.

Many people, especially black women, have thanked her for writing the truth about Tubman, for bringing her to life. Despite a horrific childhood and disappointments (such as her inability to rescue her sister, who died a slave), Tubman struggled and endured.

"She faced tremendous odds," say Clifford Larson, "and did something amazing with her life." So much for myth--the real story, it turns out, is far more remarkable.

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