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Professor Sheds Light on Life and Legacy of Harriet Tubman

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January 27, 2017

Most of us know abolitionist Harriet Tubman as the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, leading dozens of escaped slaves from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. But that’s only a fraction of her story.

“While that’s all true — she is one of the most courageous people in American history — that’s only 10 years of her life,” said Kristen Oertel, Mary Frances Barnard Professor of 19th Century American History at the University of Tulsa.  “She was a major historical figure throughout the 19th Century, fighting for justice for the poor, freedmen, women’s suffrage, and the rights of the elderly.” 

Oertel is the author of Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the Nineteenth Century, which examines not only Tubman’s more familiar life story as a conductor, prominent abolitionist, and Union spy, but her activism in the nearly half century after the Civil War.

The reason most Americans have such a limited and simplistic view of Tubman is partly due to the lack of scholarly books written about her in recent years, according to Oertel. While there are plenty of children’s nonfiction books available and an enduring mythology surrounding the woman abolitionist that William Lloyd Garrison called “Moses,” only four historical nonfiction titles have been published about Tubman in the last 20 years.

That’s why Oertel, whose research specializes in the history of race and gender in Antebellum America, chose Tubman when she was asked to write for the Routledge Historical Americans book series. She believes Tubman’s story of activism and personal empowerment resonates today as much as it did more than a century ago.

“I wanted to look at all the other aspects of her life,” said Oertel, whose current research examines slavery in the Indian Territories. “As a role model for today.”

In the years after the Civil War, Tubman worked both nationally and locally around Auburn, New York, to advocate for those overlooked by society. She raised money to settle former slaves in freedmen communities across the country, and worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and others to promote women’s suffrage.  At home, Tubman opened her own doors to the poor giving them food, shelter and finding them employment, and raised money to open the John Brown Home for the Aged.  

“She should be known for her tireless work for people and their freedom,” Oertel said. “She knew that despite the 13th Amendment blacks and women were not truly free.”

Tubman’s story and those of her peers are filled with struggles and injustices that have been excluded from popular historical accounts. Introducing their stories is important not only to historical research but to solving issues today.

“We understand now that it has to be addressed, however painful that might be, if we’re going to move forward,” Oertel said.

Sara PD
Community Programming Department

Comments

those are cool facts about Harriet Tubman.

From darvonyea (not verified)
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 10:13am

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