A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 21, 2016
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves”

American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) is often credited with saying:

“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

There is no evidence that Tubman ever said this. Tubman helped about 300 slaves get their freedom, but not “thousands.” The quote first appears in print in 1993 and 1994, with no known earlier source.


Wikipedia: Hariet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved families and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era was an active participant in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
(...)
Twenty-dollar bill
On April 20, 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced plans to add Tubman to the front of the twenty-dollar bill, moving President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, to the rear of the bill.

Wikiquote: Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (c. 1822 – 10 March 1913), also known as Moses, was an African-American abolitionist. An escaped slave, she worked as a farmhand, lumberjack, laundress, cook, refugee organizer, raid leader, intelligence gatherer, nurse, healer, revival speaker, feminist, fundraiser, and conductor on the Underground Railroad.
(...)
Disputed
I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.
. From Dorothy Winbush Riley, My Soul Looks Back ‘Less I Forget p. 148 (1993). Riley gives a date of “c. 1865” but offers no citation. No source from earlier than 1993 is known. Quoted in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1999) by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah, p. 299. Tubman specialists like Jean H. Humez and Kate Clifford Larson deem this one completely spurious. See “Bogus Tubman,” by Steve Perisho.

Harriet Tubman Myths and Facts by Kate Clifford Larson
Fake Quote: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Original Quote: There is no original quote for this. This quote was entirely made up, and became popularized starting sometime in the the 1990s. There is no documentation, nor historical basis for this quote.

19 February 1994, New Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, PA), “Bar Group’s Good Move On Leadership,” pg. A-6:
Harriet Tubman, an uneducated and illiterate runaway slave, not only returned to the South on countless occasions to free more than 300 slaves but she became an effective spy for the Union during the Civil War and was the only woman to ever lead a group of American soldiers into battle.

About her monumental achievements of emancipating so many people she reportedly said, “I could have freed many more if they had known they were slaves.”

Google Books
Stolen Women:
Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives

By Gail Wyatt
New York, NY: Wiley
1997
Pg. 44:
No one has ever described this concept more pointedly than Harriet Tubman when she said, “I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

Google Books
March 1997, Ebony, “Mother Wit:Words of Wisdom from Black Women” by Joy Bennett Kinnon, pg. 62, col. 2:
ON STRUGGLE
I freed thousands of slaves, I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.
-- Harriet Tubman

16 July 1998, Roll Call (Washington, DC), “Harriet Tubman,” pg. 1:
“I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

19 June 2001, Chicago (IL) Defender, “Make `Juneteenth’ a state, national holiday,” pg. 9:
“I freed hundreds of slaves in my lifetime. I could have freed more—if they had known they were slaves."-- Underground Railroad “engineer” Harriet Tubman.

1 November 2001, Vital Speeches of the Day, “Rebuilding the extended family: The power and importance of effective networking” by George C. Fraser, pg. 57:
Harriett Tubman said it best ... “I have freed a thousand slaves, but I could have freed a thousand more if they had only known they were slaves.”

Maxwell Perspective (Maxwell School of Syracuse University), Spring 2008
The Truths Behind the Myth of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman is an American heroine, but her life story is shrouded in myth and exaggeration. Thanks to the work of Maxwell faculty members and students, the genuine contributions of Tubman’s life are coming to light.

by Renee Gearhart Levy
(...)
It all started when feminist political analyst Robin Morgan updated her infamous 1970 essay “Goodbye to All That” to castigate the racist and sexist divisions in the campaign, particularly as hurled against Clinton. In response to the failure of some women to support Clinton (and by implication, failure to be liberated), 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.’”

Within days, the validity of the quote was called into question by Ralph Luker of the History News Network, who contacted scholars who have researched Tubman—including Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history at the Maxwell School (and African American studies at SU). Sernett is the author of the recently published Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History.

None could trace the quote to primary sources.

Liber Locorum Communium
FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2014
Bogus Tubman: “I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”
Harriet Tubman, as quoted (but without a citation) in

1993:  My soul looks back, ‘less I forget:  a collection of quotations by people of color, ed. Dorothy Winbush Riley (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 148.  My thanks to Quote Investigator Dr. Garson O’Toole for supplying this one in a note via email dated 18 March 2014.  Riley substitutes a comma for the first period, and gives a date of “c. 1865”.  She died in 2012.

W. Caleb McDaniel, Rice University
The Dangers of a Fake Tubman Quote
Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on March 22, 2016
(...)
‘I could have saved thousands - if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’ [Emphasis added.]

The trouble with the quote was that Tubman never said it, as historians rushed to point out. Tubman expert Milton Sernett called it a twentieth-century fabrication, and Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson listed it as a fake quote on her page of “Myths and Facts” about Tubman.

Despite these corrections by scholars, however, the quote continues to haunt the Internet. It shows up in a prominent sidebar when you search for the abolitionist’s name on Google, which only knows to report what is most popular on webpages.

Lee Baley’s eurweb
Harriet Tubman Quote Going Viral Today is NOT from Harriet Tubman
Apr 20, 16 by EURPublisher01
*Folks are ecstatic that Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and a quote attributed to the famed abolitionist that’s been hot on social media is: “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

Those are powerful words, but they didn’t come from Tubman. 

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Thursday, April 21, 2016 • Permalink