Saturday, September 22, 2012

167: The Self-Empowered Woman: Harriet Tubman

Dear Followers,

I recently read an item about a new movie project that will profile the life of Harriet Tubman, legendary Abolitionist and Civil War spy. The actress Zoe Saldana has been chosen to portray the woman who helped so many slaves reach freedom via the Underground Railroad, but several critics felt that Saldana is too light-skinned and pretty to accurately portray the brave woman who had been given the name "Moses" because she'd "never lost a passenger." Reading about the controversy surrounding the movie piqued my curiosity about this 19th century American heroine.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820. Her maternal grandmother had arrived in America on slave ship from Africa, and her mother worked "in the big house" as a cook while her father was a skilled woodsman who managed the timber work on the plantation where he lived. Harriet had eight siblings, and by the age of six she was assigned to work as a nursemaid for an infant. Once, when the baby cried, Harriet was whipped and later (as a youngster) she was lashed--before breakfast--so cruelly that she carried the scars on her back for the rest of her life. She often wore extra layers of clothes to protect herself from beatings, and one time she even ran away for five days.

As an adolescent, she was once sent to a store for supplies, and while there she saw a slave who had left the fields without permission. When she was told to restrain the young man, she refused, and the furious overseer threw a two pound metal weight at him--but, instead, it struck her head instead. Bleeding and unconscious, she was returned to the plantation, but received no medical care. Her boss said she was worthless, and her owner was unable to sell her. She began having seizures, would appear to fall asleep without warning, and suffered from mental "episodes" (which included headaches, narcoleptic attacks and seizures) for the rest of her life (12: Hard Times).

Harriet was a devout Christian, in part because--as an illiterate child--her mother had told her countless Bible stories. She, however, rejected the idea that slaves should be obedient, and preferred the Old Testament stories of deliverance (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). One abolitionist wrote, "I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. Throughout her life she felt that the dreams and visions she experienced after the attack were revelations from God."

In 1849, Harriet and her brothers (Ben and Harry) had been "hired out" to a different plantation owner and escaped.  After a reward of $100 had been posted, the three returned because Ben and Harry wanted to go back. But Harriet soon left again, and was able to warn her friends of her escape plans by singing coded messages that seemed like gospel songs. She later used spirituals to warn fellow travellers on the Underground Railroad of danger ahead or to signal a clear path (9: Music).

Using the Underground Railroad (which was organized by free and enslaved blacks, Quakers and white abolitionists), the 90 mile journey to Pennsylvania probably took close to two weeks because she could only travel at night--guided by the North Star. In December 1850, Harriet bravely returned to Maryland, where she was able to help other family members escape (11: Risk Addiction). Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison named her "Moses" because in the book of Exodus the prophet "led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt."

In 1851, she returned to Dorchester County with the plan of helping her husband, John Tubman, escape. She had saved money and purchased a suit that he could wear on the way to Philadelphia. But she learned that he had married another woman, was happy with his life, and had no interest in going North with Harriet (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Tubman used the opportunity to lead another group of slaves into Pennsylvania instead.

During this time, Fredrick Douglass became her strongest supporter. In a letter to her he wrote, "most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day--you in the night...The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism" (4: Supportive Someone).

During her trips to Pennsylvania she carried a revolver because slaves were not allowed to change their mind or turn back. She did not hesitate to point a gun at a man's head and say, "You go on or die" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). There was a large ransom (or bounty) for the five foot tall disabled former slave, but she was never captured--nor were any of the slaves she guided to freedom (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

In 1863, while the Civil War was raging, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Harriet began to work for the Union Army under orders from Secretary of War Edwin W. Stanton. At that time she became the first woman to ever lead an armed assault during the Civil War, and her efforts helped over 700 slaves escape (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Tubman was eventually able to purchase a home in Auburn, New York, but during a train ride after the Civil War a conductor told her to move back to the smoking car. She refused and cited her government service, but he became angry and grabbed her, while enlisting the help of two other passengers to force her to move. During the scuffle her arm was broken, she suffered other injuries, and passengers cursed her while urging the conductor to kick her off the train. So even though she was regarded as a heroine by many, there was no shortage of people who saw her as a troublemaker.

Tubman's last years were spent in Auburn, where she worked various jobs and took in boarders so she could care for her elderly parents, other family members, and local people in need.  One of her boarders was a bricklayer named Nelson Davis who was a Civil War veteran.  Although he was 22 years younger than she, they married in 1869 and spent the nest 20 years together; in 1874, they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.
After her death in 1913, she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery, and Booker T. Washington paid tribute to her groundbreaking work. At the end of the 20th Century she was named as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War--third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. In 1944, the SS Harriet Tubman became the first Liberty Ship to be named for a black woman. And in 1978, The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of her as the first in a series honoring African Americans. Her name has been included on a list of the 100 greatest African Americans, and two movies (A Woman Called Moses and The Quest For Freedom) have already been made (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Looking forward to your comments...

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