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African Americans have made many accomplishments in the tech field, as shown in this awards notice of the “Blacks in Tech Top 10 Awards” from the Black Business Journal in Austin, Texas, last year.


Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton

About 15 years ago, after languishing in popular culture and historical legends since the early 1940s, a series of outstanding scholarly and highly readable biographies revealed Harriet Tubman’s truly amazing life: Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, by Jean M. Humez (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson (Ballantine Books, 2009); and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton, (Little, Brown & Company, 2004), which we are reviewing here.

Tubman was immortalized as a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad; author Catherine Clinton details Harriet Tubman’s secret journeys into Maryland during the 1850s to rescue enslaved women, men, and children, earning her the biblical name “Moses.”

No history of slavery can be fully understood without reading Clinton’s marvelous book that transforms a trove of previously untapped documents, sources, and genealogical research. Tubman is revealed as so much more than a black woman who managed to escape enslavement in 1849, refusing to spend her life in bondage. A complex, brilliant, shrewd, and deeply religious woman, driven by love of family and faith, Tubman dedicated herself to fighting for liberty and equality for the remainder of her long life. She returned again and again to liberate her beloved family and more than 70 friends.

Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tubman bore the scars of whippings all her life. She suffered permanent disability from a head injury resulting from an object thrown at a slave by an enraged overseer. During her lifetime Tubman gained international acclaim as an abolitionist, Civil War spy, suffragist, nurse and remarkable humanitarian. By the late 1850's, Tubman was appearing on the antislavery lecture circuit. Her completely unpredictable achievements resulted in international celebrity, acclaim and close ties with Northern politicians, abolitionists, and Frederick Douglass.


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During the Civil War, Tubman served as spy and scout for Union forces. She helped to connect Northern troops with networks of slave information. The book includes her involvement with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. John Brown, who visited her in Canada to seek her help in planning his abortive 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, called her “General Tubman.” In June 1863, she played a crucial role in a Union raid in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 slaves.

After the war, Tubman settled in Auburn, N.Y. Sadly, she struggled economically for the rest of her life. The government refused to acknowledge her work as scout and spy with a small pension. In between domestic work, she engaged in public speaking to support herself and philanthropic efforts on behalf of freed slaves. A regular speaker at women’s suffrage gatherings, Tubman demanded to know if women’s wartime deeds “do not place woman as man’s equal, what do?” Active in the suffrage movement for 40 years until the early 1900s, Tubman died at the age of ninety.

Tubman remained illiterate her entire life. She left not a single document in her own hand. Writing Tubman’s biography required that Clinton (and the other two authors mentioned above) do extensive research in local historical sources. Clinton draws on extensive historical writings of recent years about slavery and the Civil War. She does a superb job of putting Tubman’s life within its times without losing the focus on Tubman’s life and qualities.

Tubman confounded even her admirers. They could not comprehend a “Negro woman” who behaved like the bravest of men. John Brown, for example, could not conceive of her as a woman. He referred to her not just as “General” but with a masculine pronoun: “He is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with.” After the Civil War, a Boston editor wrote: “I regard her as . . . the most extraordinary person of her race I have ever met. She is a Negro of pure or almost pure blood, can neither read nor write, and has the characteristics of her race and condition. But she has done what can scarcely be credited on the best authority, and she has accomplished her purposes with a coolness, foresight, patience and wisdom, which in a white man would have raised him to the highest pitch of reputation.”

Read this book and try to understand how Harriet Tubman, and courageous women in any era, manage to transcend the constraints that the era and society placed upon them. Read how extraordinariness and ordinariness can come together to create an almost impossibly heroic woman like Harriet Tubman.

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