Is Harriet Tubman A Fictional Character? (Dane Calloway and the Underground Railroad)
In this edition of, “Say What?!!” we evaluate Dane Calloway’s claim that Harriet Tubman is a fictional character and that the underground railroad has no correlation with the network of safe houses used to assist fugitive slaves as historians have claimed. Dane makes the extraordinary claim that the Underground Railroad is an actual underground transit system that had been in existence for centuries. The original video, Harriet Tubman Is A Fictional Character Created By An Act Of Congress And Sarah Bradford In 1869! can be viewed (at your own risk) here [https://youtu.be/nqvl1R9jiOg].
California, The Fugitive Slave and the Compromise of 1850; https://youtu.be/Mu4jQ6d52q8
The African Roots of Black Music; https://youtu.be/b-etpNBtu7g
This presentation contains images that were used under a Creative Commons License. Click here to see the full list of images and attributions:
“Gish Gallop.” Logically Fallacious, www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/gish-gallop.html.
“Argument from Incredulity.” Logically Fallacious, www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Argument-from-Incredulity.
“Bald Eagle Calling.” YouTube, 23 Mar. 2018, www.youtu.be/Wy_9b58o99Y.
“Red Tailed Hawk Let’s out Piercing Cry.” YouTube, 15 Nov. 2018, www.youtu.be/lP0BPc023qg.
“Contextomy.” Logically Fallacious, www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Contextomy
“Shifting of the Burden of Proof.” Logically Fallacious, www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Shifting-of-the-Burden-of-Proof.
I’m Darius spearman and you’re watching African elements. It’s time for another edition of, “Say What?!!” This time we evaluate Dane Calloway’s claim that Harriet Tubman is a fictional character and that the underground railroad has no correlation with the network of safe houses used to assist fugitive slaves as historians have claimed. Rather the underground railroad is an actual underground transit system that had been in existence for centuries.
Is there any evidence at all to support this claim? Have historians been lying to you all along?
Thank you for watching African elements in this series we examine claims related to black studies to determine where and why they fall short in meeting their burden of proof. Once again, a huge thanks to our Patreon subscribers for supporting this work. If you’d like to join them and get access to ad free content and other materials for as little as a dollar a month, click the link below in the description.
So, this in video we’re going to examine Dane Callaway’s claim as it relates to Harriet Tubman. Just for clarity, Dane was pretty vague on what his claim was was in the video, which made it was hard to pin down the actual argument he was making. I had to go to his description to extract the specifics because I wanted to be careful not to misstate his argument. Even so, I’ve had to do some extrapolation from the video for the sake of intellectual honesty to try to discern what exactly he meant without strawmanning him. For example, what he claims in the description is that Harriet Tubman is a fictional person.
Now, I could point to the numerous first-hand accounts that verified her existence and even the documents that Dane himself produced in his own video that verified that she was in fact a real person, and I could end the video right here.
It’s clear from the context of the video, though, that what he means is not that she didn’t exist, but that the accounts of her life as told by historians are fictional. Even that was difficult, though, because he didn’t specifically state which aspects of her life were fictional. Rather, we have to extrapolate what specific claims he’s taking issue with from the …ahem… “evidence” that he gives. Also, with few exceptions he doesn’t specifically state who is putting forward the claims he’s arguing against. It’s mostly a nameless, faceless, “they,” or “history claims, such and such…” As we’ll see, not naming names, allows him to create a hypothetical strawman.
The irony here, is that he had so many opportunities to make valid points about aspects of Harriet Tubman’s story that historians have gotten wrong… Things that I, myself have repeated in front of a classroom, and I’VE gotten wrong. Stick around after this video premier for the live Q&A and where I’ll get into one of the things I’ve repeated for years about Harriet Tubman that I was just plain wrong about. The point here is that the methods and tools I used to find out that I was wrong are largely the same ones that I’m sharing here, and that’s the point of this whole series. Hopefully using these tools, you can have better confidence that the things you believe are actually true.
Some of Dane’s other claims that will be examining are: the recent news on the archaeological discovery of Harriet Tubman’s father’s house is false. The Underground Railroad is an actual underground transit system that’s been in existence for centuries, and has no correlation with “safe houses” as historians have claimed. Why she truly has no siblings, why was her name changed (that’s actually a claim he never directly addressed, so we can just nix that right here). Lastly, Dane claims he knows the “real reason” Harriet Tubman was chosen to be on the $20 bill. So exciting!
So, let’s start off with the first claim that the recent archeological find of Harriet Tubman’s father’s house was false.
Now when it comes to the life of Harriet Tubman, you might think all there is to know about her life has already been uncovered…
Right off the bat we have what’s called a Gish gallop. In a Gish gallop an argument is constructed by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the claim as evidence without any regard for strength or accuracy. It’s a common tactic used to make evidence seem overwhelming when it actually isn’t. In this case, we’re presented with a cascade of weak evidence and then we’re presented with the conclusion. When we look at each piece of evidence individually, though, what it all amounts to is, well…[Goldblum: That is one big pile of sh**]
So let’s look at the evidence. I’m going to skip most of it and focus only on the parts that are related to the claim. For anybody who believes I’m leaving out some crucial bit of evidence and would like to call me out on that, I’ve left a link to the original video in the description. I’d be happy to have a conversation in the comments on why the things I’m skipping over isn’t evidence. So, without boring you all the tears, here are the points in that Gish gallop that he does emphasize.
Well, we know that 1836 Anthony Thompson’s will — and he was a person who enslaved Ben Ross — he put in there that in five years from his death that that Ben would be manumitted freed and be given 10 acres, not only with the will but also some land deeds over time began to mention old Ben’s place…
When she showed us the fragments of some of the plates…[REWIND] when she showed us the fragments of, of some of the plates…
So, each artifact has a story it has an object is linked with and the more we excavate, the more we find, the more we can really reconstruct how, how Ben Ross lived there in the marshland.
Okay, and here’s his conclusion (if you can even call it that).
“How can you ‘reconstruct’ how ‘Ben Ross’ lived there…… If you only have old pieces of glass, rocks, and a coin from 1808?” This is what’s called an argument from incredulity, or “Concluding that because you can’t or refuse to believe something, it must not be true.”
In order to demonstrate something as false, you have to actually provide evidence that it’s false. The fact that you find something incredible, or improbable isn’t evidence of anything.
Aside from that, we have “some land deeds that mentioned o’le Ben’s place” that he never even bothers to directly address. And this is our overwhelming evidence.[flies buzzing]
Next, we have another Gish gallop presumably to make the case as to why Tubman was chosen to be on the $20 bill.
It’s just a couple of news stories with nothing emphasized. I’m not quite sure why it’s there, since at no point does he say, “A ha this proves…something.” It’s just there for no apparent reason. He just inserts the clips unedited, with no emphasis on anything, and then just ends with this mic drop…
Now… Even there there’s something that I need to point out. I have to apologize in advance. This may sound petty and nitpicky, but it just bugs me. This is a bald eagle. This is the sound a bald eagle makes. However, the sound paired with this eagle…is not a bald eagle, but actually a hawk (most likely a red-tailed hawk like this one). Yes, I know, this has nothing to do with the argument, it’s just a pet peeve of mine, and it bugs me. Anyway, onward…
Next we come to his most bizarre claim. The Underground Railroad is an actual underground transit system that has been in existence for centuries, and has no correlation with “safe houses” as history so loves to claim.
Again, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version and do my best to extract the specific points that he seems to think are evidence. What it amounts to, though, is just a series of claims with no evidence whatsoever. For example, he claims without evidence that:
Slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad were actually employees trying to free themselves of their jobs through a literal railroad that existed underground, and the reason it was underground is that fugitives were unable to travel via transit.
He shows photos of people in underground mines and railway tunnels, claiming with no evidence whatsoever that these were part of an ancient underground network of railways. Now, I’m sure Dane’s fan boys are going to blow up the comment section claiming I skipped over all the evidence he presented. Again, if you’d like to specify below what crucial bit of evidence I skipped, I’m happy to have that conversation and explain why it’s not evidence.
He ends this section with what’s called “contextomy,” often referred to as a quote mining.
In the year 1896, at a suffrage convention, or rather a voting convention for women’s rights in New York. Harriet Tubman was allegedly quoted stating the following…I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years. And I can say what most conductors can’t say. I never ran my train of the track, and I never lost a passenger. End quote. What’s very interesting to note about this quote is that she indicated to the public what her job’s description and possession was for eight years with the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman acknowledged that she was literally a train conductor, in which a train conductor is responsible for the overall operations of rail systems and safety measures for its own coming passengers. So in this quote, which was said to have been stated by Harriet Tubman directly, she admits to performing her duties without error, while also indicating that she cannot say the same for other conductors of the Underground Railroad.
It’s a fallacy that removes a quote or passage from its context in order to distort its meaning. You could also call this a cherry-picking fallacy where very selective evidence is presented while ignoring stronger or inconvenient evidence. For example there are other quotes were Harriet Tubman specifically mentions the North Star, whereas trains don’t generally use stars to navigate. I went with quote mining, though, in order to highlight the historical context.
Particularly from the 1850s onward after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave rescuing was an extraordinarily dangerous occupation. The need for secrecy was paramount and because of that railroad terminology was used along with an entire set of codewords to avoid speaking overtly about slave rescuing. That’s also true more broadly in Black culture as we see lots of coded language in the everyday vernacular. I addressed that in a separate video as it relates to Black music for example, so if you’d like to check that out, the link is in the description.
So, metaphorical coded language became a part of the vernacular and there’s no reason to believe that she wasn’t speaking metaphorically in this cherry-picked quote. Contrary to the claim, Harriet Tubman did not say the word, “literally” when referring to herself as a train conductor.
So the question remains, how was Harriet Tubman cognizant of the routes ranging from Southern to northern parts of these lands and all the way to Canada, with her being an alleged runaway slave?
Here we have what can generously be called a strawman fallacy. I say generously, because a strawman fallacy consists of substituting an argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the argument. No historian who understands the Underground Railroad would claim that Harriet Tubman was cognizant of the routes from the South all the way to Canada. That’s not how the Underground Railroad worked. The Underground Railroad operated as a network in which each agent played his or her specific role. Tubman’s role as a conductor was to guide slaves from the Eastern shore of Maryland where she escaped, to one of the safe houses in the free state of Pennsylvania. From there, runaway slaves would continue along the network to the next safe house. So, is Dane purposely misrepresenting our historical understanding of the Underground Railroad or is he just plain ignorant of what historians actually say about it? I’ll let you decide…
And how is it that Harriet Tubman hinted that it was more than one conductor of the Underground Railroad, but she was the only one chosen to be duly noted by American history? Who are the others?
Here we have another straw man fallacy and this one’s just embarrassing. Again, is Dane either purposely misrepresenting the history, or is simply not aware of the long list of conductors and operatives on the Underground Railroad. The list includes folks from William Still who is often referred to as the “father of the Underground Railroad,” to Mary Ellen Pleasant to many many others.
From there we go on another Gish gallop about the preservation of historic sites through acts of Congress. He claims without any evidence whatsoever that this was done to spread a false narrative.
… and yet another Gish gallop on Why the story changes every year, which is yet another series of claims with no evidence.
Finally we get another one of his actual claims. Why was Harriet Tubman chosen to be on the $20 bill. For me this is the most interesting part of the video as it does actually contain some little-known aspects of Harriet Tubman’s history. It just ends on a weird, but predictable note that you might have noticed throughout this video. He goes on another kind of a Gish gallop here, but long story short Harriet Tubman initially received monthly pension of five dollars for her service in the Civil War. Her husband, who had also served in the Civil War, died and that prompted a drawn-out process where Tubman tried to obtain an additional pension for her late husband as a survivor. In the end, after some back and forth, her pension was raised to $20 a month.
They were adamant about attempting to get her pension raised to $25 per month, but was denied by the committee of pensions. And then it was later ruled that Harriet would receive a pension of exactly $20 per month. Does this have something to do with wanting her face on a $20 Bill?
That’s an interesting question. The weird part is that it’s presented as if he’s uncovered some conspiracy. If Dane really wanted an answer to this question, I’m sure he could just reach out to the Treasury Department or the White House Press Secretary and ask. But this brings up another common tactic for people who argue dishonestly… “Just asking questions.”
I’m sure you’ve noticed this throughout the video and it’s a tactic commonly used among conspiracy theorists where a statement masquerades as a question. Framing it as a question protects the one asking the question from accusations of false claims. When called out on it usually the person engaging this type of fallacy will take a step back and say, “Hey, I’m just asking questions.” The fallacy here is that by “just asking questions,” the person is actually shifting the burden of proof.
The burden of proof is on the person making the claim so if you notice somebody in a discussion effectively making claims by way of rhetorical questions, do call them out on it by saying something like, “If you’re gonna make a claim don’t ask me questions. It’s on you to provide evidence for your claim.”
The rest is just another gish gallop with no connection to any specific claim. So to recap, we have a series of several logical fallacies that include the Gish gallop, argument from incredulity, contextomy, or quote mining, strawman, and shifting the burden of proof. These are some of the things to watch out for when examining extraordinary claims. If you see stuff like this popping up in your conversations, do politely call it out. Oftentimes that will lead to a more intellectually honest and engaging discussion. Worst case scenario, if they persist, you’ll know straightaway that you’re wasting your time in attempting to have a productive conversation with that individual.
There’s a lot more interesting stuff here to unpack, so be sure to check out the live Q&A immediately following this premier if you’d like to continue this conversation. Otherwise, I’m Darius Spearman, thank you for watching, and I’ll see you in the comments.