Students in an AP Seminar class at Penn Manor High School this week had an opportunity to watch a new film about Harriet Tubman and learn firsthand about the painstaking research undertaken by an acclaimed biographer and author who helped assure the movie’s authenticity.
Kate Clifford Larson, author of the Tubman biography Bound for the Promised Land, shared stories of her quest to dispel myths and learn the truth about Tubman while researching her book during a visit with students enrolled in the AP Seminar class, “Race, Ethnicity and Gender,” on Dec. 9.
Larson then joined the students at Penn Cinema to watch Harriet, the new movie about Tubman, before engaging with them again about her research practices and her role as an advisor on the film.
“Today was incredible,” said Etsub Taye, a sophomore AP Seminar student. “Having the opportunity to talk to an author who has so much experience and to have her share her wisdom with us was incredible.”
Etsub was one of 54 current and former AP Seminar students who took part in the event, which was organized by their social studies teacher, Todd Mealy.
Mealy met Larson in 2007 during a workshop for educators on the Underground Railroad at which she was a keynote speaker. They kept in touch over the years, and when Harriet was about to be released, Mealy – who has written five books of his own, two of them biographies – approached Larson about visiting with his class, which is heavily based on research.
In addition to Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, Larson has written two other critically acclaimed biographies – The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln and Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.
Larson explained to students how she conducts her research and how she refuted several false narratives about Tubman while researching her book, which was published in 2003.
Students also got to ask her detailed questions on a variety of topics, including the recently thwarted plans for a Harriet Tubman $20 bill, the status of free black communities during the Civil War and Tubman’s role as a spy for the Union Army.
“It was interesting to see the research process through her eyes and how she found something she was passionate about and was able to turn it into a major motion picture,” said Jordan Schucker, a junior AP Seminar student.
“It was eye opening to see how our research can impact so many people and have a lasting legacy that will hopefully create this social movement that needs to happen in America today.”
Her classmate, Letu Chibssa, said she was inspired by Larson’s “amazing” visit.
“I respect all that she does, and how she studies black women,” Letu said. “I’ve heard of her before, but I never thought I would see her and have a connection with her.”
Mealy is hoping Larson’s visit enhanced students’ understanding of race and gender issues in a historical context and gave them valuable insights as they pursue their own research and engage in thesis defense projects – a requirement of the course – in the coming weeks.
“I’m glad the students were able to interact with an award-winning academic who was willing to offer suggestions for how to go about their own academic research,” he said.