As I began writing this column, on his WAMU show 1A, Joshua Johnson and his guests were discussing how we teach about slavery. The discussion was yet another reminder of how much work still needs to be done in addressing American racism. Some of that can happen, as Johnson's show suggested, through better – more accurate, fuller, and more empathetic – understanding of history. There are many ways we can accomplish this, and what happens in history classrooms represents only one (although a critically important one). Another is to visit historic sites. Last fall, as part of the Board of Trustees retreat, during which diversity was one of our topics, we visited the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, MD.
We all know about Harriet Tubman as someone who helped numerous enslaved people escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad. She came to this courageous role in her late twenties after a life that, while exceptional in some ways, also probably exemplified that of many black people living in the Old South. She carried scars from whippings she received as a young child to her grave. Her mother and father had different owners who lived quite far apart; three of her older sisters were sold south (a common occurrence in the Old South as a changing economy reduced the demand for labor while cotton production in the Deep South increased the need for farm workers); she and other family members were regularly hired out to other individuals, a practice that began for her when she was only six: all these circumstances meant that, beginning when she was quite small, Tubman was often separated from her family. What would it be like to have our six-year-old sent away to work in another household? How would it feel for the child?
When she was approximately 14, while doing errands with the cook of her hired-out owner, Tubman stepped between an overseer and an enslaved boy who was trying to escape. The angry overseer threw an iron weight, missing the boy but hitting Tubman in the head, fracturing her skull. In a testament to the barbarity of enslaved life, despite this grave injury, her hired-out owner sent her back to the fields to work. She later described this experience to a friend, "I went to work again and there I worked with the blood and sweat rolling down my face till I couldn't see." Not surprisingly, she couldn't sustain this labor and her hired-out master sent her back to her owner where her mother nursed her back to health. She endured severe headaches and seizures the rest of her life.
Tubman's head injury may also have caused her visions, visions that reflected her intense religiosity and the deep faith that sustained her throughout her life. As she told a friend in 1859 (when she was actively engaged in the Underground Railroad), "God's time [Emancipation] is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free." Religious zeal abounded in nineteenth century America, and it represented an important underpinning of the abolitionist movement. But even in that context, the power of Tubman's faith stood out. Thomas Garrett, a Wilmington, DE abolitionist, observed that he "never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul . . . and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great."
Tubman's owner died deeply in debt in 1849, and she and her family feared they would be sold to settle his estate. To avoid this fate, Tubman fled. Having been hired out to a Madison, Dorchester County farmer/merchant/shipbuilder, and then persuading her owner to let her hire herself out, which allowed her to keep a portion of the fees paid for her work, Tubman had developed valuable connections and knowledge of the waterways and landscape from her father, now a freedman working in the timber business in the area, and the black mariners who manned the ships carrying goods along the East Coast. She relied on these resources as she traveled the Underground Railroad to reach Philadelphia and freedom.
In due time, she would establish herself as an important member of the abolitionist and women's suffrage community, speaking frequently at meetings and conventions. Initially, however, while she quickly found work as a domestic servant, she felt alone in a big city, a sentiment no doubt compounded by the knowledge that her husband, John Tubman, a freedman, had no interest in joining her. She told her first biographer that "there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland, because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free."
In December 1850, she returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and her two children. Over the next ten years, she completed 13 rescue trips leading approximately 70 people including her two brothers and her parents to freedom. In addition, she supplied a similar number of people with specific instructions that allowed them to escape as well. It's important to recognize just how dangerous this enterprise was. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put the full weight of the Federal Government behind the apprehension of runaway slaves. She herself was a fugitive slave so subject to capture and helping others to escape was a capital crime. Her success was a credit to her courage, shrewdness, and ability to develop strong, trusting relationships in the abolitionist and black communities.
Tubman's activism didn't end there. During the Civil War, she served the Union Army as a nurse, spy, cook and scout. She served Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the famous all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment, his last meal and cared for countless black troops and former slaves who flocked to Union camps. In 1863, she led the Second South Carolina Black regiment under Colonel James Montgomery on a raid along the Combahee River that destroyed Confederate detachments, weapons, and cotton stores, and freed approximately 750 enslaved people from plantations in the vicinity. She was the first woman to command such an engagement.
After the Civil War, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, N.Y. where she continued speaking and agitating for women's right to vote and raised money to help freed slaves. She also established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. She died at the age of 90 having made a huge impact on hundreds of people's lives.
When we consider the psychological and physical trauma that Tubman endured beginning as a child, her story becomes even more inspiring. The strength and courage she demonstrated throughout her life were nothing short of extraordinary. Paradoxically, we know the stories of the Harriet Tubmans and the Frederick Douglasses who overcame tremendous odds to make a true difference in the lives of their people, but we don't know the stories of the millions of enslaved people who lived lives defined by violence, barbarity, and emotional distress, people whose stories are lost to us because they never gained their freedom, never found a way to speak publicly against a deeply inhumane system. However, well-researched historical fiction and film can breathe life into those stories. To that end, during this Black History Month, if you haven't seen or read the following, may I highly recommend the movie, Twelve Years a Slave (based on a true story) and the novels Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I promise you will gain a deeper appreciation for the atrocity that was slavery.