Dear Kate Clifford Larson,
We read in the local daily last week that you were "annoyed" by articles in this paper concerning Underground Railroad figure Harriet Tubman's ties to the city of Niagara Falls, a city that wasn't even legally incorporated at the time the Underground Railroad was active.
Frankly, we're a little annoyed as well, since much of the work you did in your book "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero" served to inform the articles we published.
There is, as you know, only one lone reference to Harriet Tubman crossing a suspension bridge near the Niagara Falls. It is contained in Sarah H. Bradford's 1869 biography of Tubman, "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," a hastily written text designed solely to raise money for Tubman's care and feeding.
In your book, you describe Bradford as "a poor choice for writing Tubman's biography." You call it an "imperfect memoir," and quote historian Jean Humez as saying that Bradford was not "a competent transcriber" of Tubman's oral stories. You state further that the author was "more suited to sentimental dramatization" than to recording history, and cite numerous errors of fact.
"Many of the mistakes found throughout the book were not corrected," you wrote. And discussing the second edition of the book, "Harriet The Moses Of Her People," you say Bradford "omitted important details, added descriptive material for literary effect, and even sensationalized certain stories for dramatic purposes."
Furthermore, you expose the story contained in the book of Tubman having a $40,000 reward on her head for the fiction that it is, and know as well as anyone that the claim she led 300 slaves to freedom is a total fabrication.
So why, in the instance of the sentimental and dramatic anecdote concerning a crossing Tubman allegedly made across the Niagara River on a suspension bridge, would you say, as you did last week, "The true story is that Harriet Tubman crossed the suspension bridge"?
Is there a single shred of contemporary evidence -- a letter, a newspaper clipping, anything other than Bradford's interpretation of Tubman's decade-old remembrance -- that definitively places Tubman specifically at the Suspension Bridge in Niagara Falls? If there is, we have not seen it.
And why, if Niagara Falls was such an important place in the Tubman story, does it receive but three fleeting mentions in your 402-page book? Auburn, N.Y., by contrast, is mentioned 122 times, St. Catharines gets 45 mentions, and even Rochester is cited on 29 occasions.
You see, Ms. Clifford Larson, the Niagara Falls Reporter only became interested in Harriet Tubman when Kevin Cottrell, a city employee charged with promoting the Underground Railroad connection, was repeatedly quoted in the newspaper you interviewed with, saying that Tubman had personally led 300 freedom-seeking former slaves over that bridge to Canada.
This erroneous information appeared in that paper so many times that people actually started to believe it, and we simply set out to correct the record.
Cottrell, who collects a salary and benefits package totaling $118,904 and founded a for-profit company that gives "Underground Railroad tours" here, is the city's point man for the establishment of a museum and interpretive center as part of a $70 million project that will also include an above-ground train station in an abandoned building very near the site of the old Suspension Bridge, which no longer exists.
Niagara Falls is a city where nearly 70 percent of the residents are receiving some form of government assistance. It is our belief that the $70 million, to say nothing of Cottrell's salary, could be spent in ways that would be far more beneficial to the African-American population actually living here today.
We appreciate that you believe the subject of your book "will draw visitors from around the world." Actually, we've already got a little attraction here that does just that.
According to the State Parks Commission, more than 9 million tourists come here every year just to see the falls themselves. The problem is that they leave two hours later, afraid to enter the bombed-out neighborhoods, drive on the pothole-filled roadways or venture into commercial areas where most storefronts are covered with plywood.
We just don't think that spending $70 million on a project designed to honor someone who may have passed through here -- on a bridge that doesn't exist any more and before Niagara Falls was even a city -- is a wise move in the current economy.
One question, though, Ms. Clifford Larson: Have you received any sort of a stipend from the city's Underground Railroad Heritage Commission or the consulting firm of Riggs Ward to express your views on Tubman's Niagara Falls connection?
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 29, 2011|