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Lecturer Kate Larson Featured As Harriet Tubman Expert in New Documentary

May 15, 2013

History Lecturer Kate Larson was filmed as "the world's expert on Harriet Tubman" for Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s documentary, Many Rivers To Cross.

"It was a pleasure to meet with him and work with him," said Larson. "He's…a fantastic scholar and public historian."

Larson has been studying Harriet Tubman for twenty years, with a particular interest in what made Tubman so different from other people born in a similar, disadvantaged position.

"Really what motivated Tubman was her family," Larson said. The people that Tubman saved on the Underground Railroad weren't strangers — they were friends and family that she loved.

After completing her last mission on the Underground Railroad in 1860, Tubman fought for the abolition of slavery by becoming a spy and scout for the Union Army. She was the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War, guiding Union ships around Confederate water mines during the Combahee River Raid in 1863. The operation saved 750 enslaved persons — many of whom then enlisted in the Union Army.

Of Tubman, Larson said, "I admire her ability to set her sights on something and keep working and working…[Tubman] demanded support, and people rose to the occasion."

Larson said that Tubman has always been viewed as an incredible heroine, but how she's remembered has changed over time.

"The view of her militancy has sort of waxed and waned," she said. "[During] the Great Depression, militancy was back in fashion." Over time though, Tubman became a person largely remembered through children's non-fiction.

Larson said she's "trying to resurrect the real person, and not the Mother Tubman persona."

"My work on Tubman…is all because of Simmons," she said. As a Masters student, the History department faculty encouraged Larson to pursue an adult book on Tubman. In 2004, Ballantine published Larson's Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.  

"It was Simmons that really launched this whole thing," Larson said. 

Many Rivers To Cross will premier on Tuesday, October 22nd at 8pm on PBS, and continue with weekly episodes on Tuesdays until November 26th. 


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