A quotation attributed to Harriet Tubman about having “freed a thousand slaves” resurfaced on social media around the anniversary of the abolitionist icon’s death, but experts told Reuters there is no record of Tubman ever saying it.
The quotation, “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves,” has been shared on Twitter (here) and Facebook (bit.ly/3yCgfdh), (bit.ly/3Fpgyfh) following the 110th anniversary of Tubman’s death on March 10, 1913.
However, there is no record of such a statement by Tubman, according to historians.
“Enslaved people did know they were enslaved,” Janell Hobson, professor of Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at Albany (here) and editor of the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project with Ms. Magazine (msmagazine.com/tubman200/) told Reuters by email. “She wouldn’t have to convince anyone.”
According to Kate Clifford Larson, who has written two books about Tubman (www.katecliffordlarson.com/), the fabricated quote started circulating in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Clifford Larson also noted that Tubman did not free a thousand slaves.
“She actually freed about 70 family and friends from Maryland, and gave instructions to another 70 or so who found their way to freedom without her directly leading them,” Clifford Larson said. “During the Civil War she led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina that liberated 750 people.”
Milton Sernett (here), professor emeritus of history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs and author of the book “Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History,” also told Reuters the “I freed a thousand slaves” quote persistently attributed to Tubman “is bogus.”
An article published by the Maxwell School (here) traced some of the confusion to the promulgation of a similar, but also unsubstantiated, quotation attributed to Tubman by feminist political analyst Robin Morgan.
In a 2008 update of her 1970 essay “Goodbye to All That,” criticizing racist and sexist divisions among Democrats during the presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Morgan 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.’”
Reuters has previously debunked other quotations falsely attributed to historical figures (here), (here), (here).
False. There is no evidence that Harriet Tubman ever said she freed a thousand slaves and would have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
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