As a continuation of an undergraduate thesis project, Emma Novak presented “The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman” at the Comstock House on February 1.
Emma Novak is a graduate student at NDSU majoring in history, specifically the 19th century. She graduated in 2017 from the University of North Dakota with a degree in history, secondary education.
“I studied her in terms of involvement in abolitionism and her relationship to white abolitionists and how there was some form of equality there and how — that relationship meant a lot in terms of why white Americans got involved in the abolitionist movement,” Novak explained.
One of Novak’s fears is public speaking so with about a dozen of people watching it was not too overwhelming to present, but it still felt intimidating in a sense for Novak. She presented this because she assumed the Comstock House wanted to bring in more awareness to Harriet Tubman for Black History Month.
Novak started her research at the beginning of the fall semester but had periodically studied Tubman from her junior year in her undergraduate program.
When Tubman died she didn’t leave many primary sources of information, but through memoirs of others, researchers are able to learn more about her journey.
For research, Novak started with the book “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero” written by historian Kate Clifford Larson and did most of her research through this written work.
Novak shared her enjoyment of history and explained that she likes to look beyond the textbooks we are taught. “I kind of like to see what is beyond — what we know, kind of the parts of their lives that haven’t been discovered yet,” Novak shared.
Novak being interested in feminism, because her undergraduate sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, focused a lot on awareness to domestic violence, made studying Harriet Tubman even better because Tubman was a feminist herself.
“She’s a lot more multiphasic than I realized; she was involved in a lot of different things beyond abolitionist,” Novak shared.
When looking through history Novak explained that many do not focus on the fact Tubman was the “first speaker at the national Federal Recreation of Afro-American Women’s conference in 1896, I thought that was very fitting,” said Novak. This was also the first conference for this movement within the women’s suffrage movement.
Although many do not focus on that part of Tubman’s life, a favorite fact of Novak’s was, “Tubman was buried with semi-military honors which I thought was kind of interesting since she did serve in the military, as a spy, nurse, and cook, especially for an African American woman.”
Novak explained that there are many assumptions of Tubman and myths that surround her memory, such as Tubman being the creator of the Underground Railroad when in reality it was established before Tubman got out of slavery herself.
Another misconception is that Tubman saved more slaves than she actually did. Although her rescue was still an accomplishment, she saved less than what people are taught in their history classes.
“She returned approximately 13 times to rescue about 70 former slaves so there’s kind of some conflation with this in a lot of modern history books and children’s literature that the number of slaves that she rescued was up to 300 but in actuality, it was only up to 70,” Novak confirmed. Tubman also directed around 50 more slaves after that making her rescue of slaves to be around 120.
Through this thesis project, Novak had an eye-opening experience by learning more into the life of Harriet Tubman. She plans to continue to research Tubman periodically, but to move onto other topics for her graduate studies as well.
Novak described this experience of research as enlightening, monumental, and hopeful.