Kristen Oertel: Digging up the railroad tracks

A split decision or moment in time can leave a colossal mark in history. The University of Tulsa’s own Professor of History, Kristen Oertel, learned this while researching the life of an American hero: Harriet Tubman.

Oertel and her book Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century
Oertel and her book Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century

Beyond the grade school classroom, many students never learn of Tubman’s life. Oertel, who teaches classes on the Civil War and Reconstruction, African-American history, the history of race and gender in America, and the history of sexuality, was approached by Routledge Press to write a biography for a series called, “Historical Americans.” With her background in 19th century race and gender, Oertel was initially asked to write about Susan B. Anthony. “I was tired of writing about white women,” she explained, so she proposed Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and political activist. As a result, Tubman was a unanimous pick for Oertel’s biography. Ironically, when Oertel was researching Tubman, she also discovered a lot of information about Susan B. Anthony because they were partners in the women’s suffrage fight in upstate New York.

From 1849 to 1860, Tubman made more than 19 trips from the South to the North following the Underground Railroad. Tubman sacrificed her own safety and freedom to help more than 75 people, including her own parents and several siblings, from slavery. Tubman lived to the age of 91, and Oertel wanted to know what she did in life after the Underground Railroad. “Her Underground Railroad work only covered roughly 11 years of her life. What did she do after the Civil War? How did she contribute to racial and social justice during those decades?” she wondered.

In the biography Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century,

Oertel focuses on Tubman’s extensive and active life, from her daring work in leading enslaved people to freedom to her life-long campaign for civil rights and women’s suffrage.

Movie critic vs. historian

Oertel working The 2019 film “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo as Tubman, along with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe, has been recognized during the film awards season. Erivo is up for the best actress Oscar for her performance, and the soundtrack “Stand Up,” also co-written by Erivo, was nominated for best original song.

When the film hit theaters in September, Oertel made sure to get a front row seat. “The film is as historically accurate as Hollywood can be, but as far as any historian knows, Tubman never jumped off a bridge during her escape from slavery,” she said.

The film covers roughly 10-15 years of Tubman’s life. Oertel explained that the dramatization of Tubman’s heroic adventures can be detrimental. “Particularly young children look at someone jumping off a bridge and they’re like, ‘I can never do that. How on earth would I ever do that?’” Oertel said. “If you have a scene where she’s doing something more realistic, something that she actually did and that students can look toward as a model for, ‘this is how I should act in the world’, why not show those scenes? Those scenes are better than these fantastical feats that everyday people will not be able to accomplish.”

The $20 Bill

U.S. paper currency shares the faces of previous presidents and founding fathers of the country:

Oertel speaks to some of her students.
Oertel speaks to some of her students.

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin. In 2016 The Department of Treasury announced that by 2020 it planned to place Jackson on the back of the $20 bill and the face of Tubman on the front to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Oertel supports the need for an updated print of money because of the lack of women and people of color on the dollar bills.

“I do think Andrew Jackson should remain on the bill but be on the back because it tells a story. His brutal treatment of Native Americans and his support of slavery should be part of our story, but Tubman’s resistance to those injustices should be part of our story as well,” she explained.

The Harriet you didn’t know

As Oertel studied Tubman’s life, she discovered that she did more than just conduct the Underground Railroad. She planned the raid on the Combahee River rice plantations alongside Union officer Colonel James Montgomery. “She gained this immense, this incredible ability to secretively and furtively move throughout the back country and talk to people and gain intelligence. Her spying work and her ability to find out where all the landmines were in the river allowed the Union raid to succeed,” she recalled.

Even today’s military leaders view this raid as an important advancement for future tactics. Oertel explained that a lot of people shied away from the raids for good reason because they affected civilians as much as soldiers; the Confederacy was more supported with supplies by civilians than the Union troops.

Oertel said Tubman’s role in that battle was interesting to research. “She shows up in a newspaper article in Wisconsin, not by name, but they say, ‘a black woman led the raid.’ If you put two and two together, you figure out it was Tubman,” she said.

Although there are still mysteries about Tubman. Historians have discovered that she was buried with a medal given to her by Queen Victoria. Britain abolished slavery 30 years before the United States did, and Tubman’s heroic efforts to end slavery stood out to the queen.

Oertel’s book, Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century is available to check out at the McFarlin Library on campus and for sale online.