Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill—which is awesome. So naturally, people on social media are celebrating with a famous Harriet Tubman quote: “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
The only problem? Tubman never said that.
W. Caleb McDaniel from Rice University has a blog post about all of the different respectable places that this quote has shown up over the years. Everyone from a New York Times columnist to Senator Cory Booker has helped spread the fake quote. But there’s no evidence that Tubman ever said it.
Milton Sernett, author of the book Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, traces the quote back to a 1970 essay on Tubman that likely pulled the quote from a fictionalized portrayal of Tubman’s life.
Making up quotes and attributing them to Tubman is nothing new, as McDaniel points out. In fact, early abolitionists were concocting quotes and embellishing stories about her even during her lifetime:
As Jean Humez shows in her book, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, this began with the very first abolitionists, who were responsible both for recording the illiterate Tubman’s own narratives and for crafting the first biographies. Those biographies are invaluable points of access into Tubman’s life and thought. But, Tubman scholars now agree, they also contained a variety of embellishments that served abolitionists’ purposes. Over time some of those embellishments (like the idea that Tubman took 19 trips back to the South and freed 300 people) became settled facts in collective memory, enshrined in children’s books and other scholarly texts as Tubman’s actual story receded from view.
Fake quotes spread so quickly on the internet that they’ve even become believable enough to appear on US postage, as was the case with Maya Angelou. But as with so many things online, this Harriet Tubman quote is fake. And in so many cases of fake quotes, the internet is directly to blame for helping them spread far and wide.
Update, May 2, 2018, 6:20am: It appears that Kanye West is the latest person to help this tweet go viral:
The quote might fit with West’s worldview, but it’s still 100 percent fake. West appeared on TMZ yesterday and implied that slavery was somehow a “choice” for black people in the United States because it lasted for 400 years.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... for 400 years? That sound like a choice,” West said.
For the record, slavery never has been and never will be a choice.