Sunday, September 2, 2018

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Harriet Tubman

Greatest of all the heroines of anti-slavery was Harriet Tubman. This brave woman not only escaped from bondage herself, but afterwards made nineteen distinct trips to the South, especially to Maryland, and altogether aided more than three hundred souls in escaping from their fetters.

Araminta Ross, better known by the Christian name Harriet that she adopted, and her married name of Tubman, was born about 1821 in Dorchester County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, both of whom were slaves, but who were privileged to be able to live their lives in a state of singular fidelity. Harriet had ten brothers and sisters, not less than three of whom she rescued from slavery; and in 1857, at great risk to herself, she also took away to the North her aged father and mother.

When Harriet was not more than six years old she was taken away from her mother and sent ten miles away to learn the trade of weaving. Among other things she was set to the task of watching muskrat traps, which work compelled her to wade much in water. Once she was forced to work when she was already ill with the measles. She became very sick, and her mother now persuaded her master to let the girl come home for a while.

Soon after Harriet entered her teens she suffered a misfortune that embarrassed her all the rest of her life. She had been hired out as a field hand. It was the fall of the year and the slaves were busy at such tasks as husking corn and cleaning up wheat. One of them ran away. He was found. The overseer swore that he should be whipped and called on Harriet and some others that happened to be near to help tie him. She refused, and as the slave made his escape she placed herself in a door to help to stop pursuit of him. The overseer caught up a two-pound weight and threw it at the fugitive; but it missed its mark and struck Harriet a blow on the head that was almost fatal. Her skull was broken and from this resulted a pressure on her brain which all her life left her subject to fits of somnolency.

Sometimes these would come upon her in the midst of a conversation or any task at which she might be engaged; then after a while the spell would pass and she could go on as before.

After Harriet recovered sufficiently from her blow she lived for five or six years in the home of one John Stewart, working at first in the house but afterwards hiring her time. She performed the most arduous labor in order to get the fifty or sixty dollars ordinarily exacted of a woman in her situation. She drove oxen, plowed, cut wood, and did many other such things. With her firm belief in Providence, in her later years she referred to this work as a blessing in disguise as it gave her the firm constitution necessary for the trials and hardships that were before her. Sometimes she worked for her father, who was a timber inspector and superintended the cutting and hauling of large quantities of timber for the Baltimore ship-yards. Her regular task in this employment was the cutting of half a cord of wood a day.

About 1844 Harriet was married to a free man named John Tubman. She had no children. Two years after her escape in 1849 she traveled back to Maryland for her husband, only to find him married to another woman and no longer caring to live with her. She felt the blow keenly, but did not despair and more and more gave her thought to what was to be the great work of her life.

It was not long after her marriage that Harriet began seriously to consider the matter of escape from bondage. Already in her mind her people were the Israelites in the land of Egypt, and far off in the North somewhere was the land of Canaan. In 1849 the master of her plantation died, and word passed around that at any moment she and two of her brothers were to be sold to the far South. Harriet, now twenty-four years old, resolved to put her long cherished dreams into effect. She held a consultation with her brothers and they decided to start with her at once, that very night, for the North. She could not go away, however, without giving some intimation of her purpose to the friends she was leaving behind. As it was not advisable for slaves to be seen too much talking together, she went among her old associates singing as follows:

When dat ar ol' chariot comes
I'm gwine to leabe you;
I'm boun' for de Promised Land;
Frien's, I'm gwine to leabe you.

I'm sorry, frien's, to leabe you;
Farewell! oh, farewell!
But I'll meet you in de mornin';
Farewell! oh, farewell!

I'll meet you in de mornin'
When you reach de Promised Land;
On de oder side of Jordan,
For I'm boun' for de Promised Land.
The brothers started with her; but the way was unknown, the North was far away, and they were constantly in terror of recapture. They turned back, and Harriet, after watching their retreating forms, again fixed her eyes on the north star. "I had reasoned dis out in my min'," said she; "there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have de other, for no man should take me alive. I would fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when de time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me."

"And so without money, and without friends," says Mrs. Bradford, "she started on through unknown regions; walking by night, hiding by day, but always conscious of an invisible pillar of cloud by day, and of fire by night, under the guidance of which she journeyed or rested. Without knowing whom to trust, or how near the pursuers might be, she carefully felt her way, and by her native cunning, or by God-given wisdom she managed to apply to the right people for food, and sometimes for shelter; though often her bed was only the cold ground, and her watchers the stars of night. After many long and weary days of travel, she found that she had passed the magic line which then divided the land of bondage from the land of freedom." At length she came to Philadelphia, where she found work and the opportunity to earn a little money. It was at this time, in 1851, after she had been employed for some months, that she went back to Maryland for her husband only to find that he had not been true.
In December, 1850, she had visited Baltimore and brought away a sister and two children. A few months afterwards she took away a brother and two other men. In December, 1851, she led out a party of eleven, among them being another brother and his wife. With these she journeyed to Canada, for the Fugitive Slave Law was now in force and, as she quaintly said, there was no safety except "under the paw of the British Lion." The winter, however, was hard on the poor fugitives, who unused to the climate of Canada, had to chop wood in the forests in the snow. Often they were frost-bitten, hungry, and almost always poorly clad. But Harriet was caring for them. She kept house for her brother, and the fugitives boarded with her. She begged for them and prayed for them, and somehow got them through the hard winter. In the spring she returned to the States, as usual working in hotels and families as a cook. In 1852 she once more went to Maryland, this time bringing away nine fugitives.

It must not be supposed that those who started on the journey northward were always strong-spirited characters. The road was rough and attended by dangers innumerable. Sometimes the fugitives grew faint-hearted and wanted to turn back. Then would come into play the pistol that Harriet always carried with her. "Dead niggers tell no tales," said she, pointing it at them; "you go on or die!" By this heroic method she forced many to go onward and win the goal of freedom.

Unfailing was Harriet Tubman's confidence in God. A customary form of prayer for her was, "O Lord, you've been with me in six troubles; be with me in the seventh." On one of her journeys she came with a party of fugitives to the home of a Negro who had more than once assisted her and whose house was one of the regular stations on the so-called Underground Railroad. Leaving her party a little distance away Harriet went to the door and gave the peculiar rap that was her regular signal. Not meeting with a ready response, she knocked several times. At length a window was raised and a white man demanded roughly what she wanted. When Harriet asked for her friend she was informed that he had been obliged to leave for assisting Negroes. The situation was dangerous. Day was breaking and something had to be done at once. A prayer revealed to Harriet a place of refuge. Outside of the town she remembered that there was a little island in a swamp, with much tall grass upon it. Hither she conducted her party, carrying in a basket two babies that had been drugged. All were cold and hungry in the wet grass; still Harriet prayed and waited for deliverance. How relief came she never knew; she felt that it was not necessarily her business to know. After they had waited through the day, however, at dusk there came slowly along the pathway on the edge of the swamp a man clad in the garb of a Quaker. He seemed to be talking to himself, but Harriet's sharp ears caught the words: "My wagon stands in the barnyard of the next farm across the way. The horse is in the stable; the harness hangs on a nail;" and then the man was gone. When night came Harriet stole forth to the place designated, and found not only the wagon but also abundant provisions in it, so that the whole party was soon on its way rejoicing. In the next town dwelt a Quaker whom Harriet knew and who readily took charge of the horse and wagon for her.

Naturally the work of such a woman could not long escape the attention of the abolitionists. She became known to Thomas Garrett, the great-hearted Quaker of Wilmington, who aided not less than three thousand fugitives to escape, and also to Grit Smith, Wendell Phillips, William H. Seward, F. B. Sanborn, and many other notable men interested in the emancipation of the Negro. From time to time she was supplied with money, but she never spent this for her own use, setting it aside in case of need on the next one of her journeys. In her earlier years, however, before she became known, she gave of her own slender means for the work.

Between 1852 and 1857 she made but one or two journeys, because of the increasing vigilance of slaveholders and the Fugitive Slave Law. Great rewards were offered for her capture and she was several times on the point of being taken, but always escaped by her shrewd wit and what she considered warnings from heaven. While she was intensely practical, she was also a most firm believer in dreams. In 1857 she made her most venturesome journey, this time taking with her to the North her old parents who were no longer able to walk such distances as she was forced to go by night. Accordingly she had to hire a wagon for them, and it took all her ingenuity to get them through Maryland and Delaware. At length, however, she got them to Canada, where they spent the winter. As the climate was too rigorous, however, she afterwards brought them down to New York, and settled them in a home in Auburn, N. Y., that she had purchased on very reasonable terms from Secretary Seward. Somewhat later a mortgage on the place had to be lifted and Harriet now made a noteworthy visit to Boston, returning with a handsome sum toward the payment of her debt. At this time she met John Brown more than once, seems to have learned something of his plans, and after the raid at Harper's Ferry and the execution of Brown she glorified him as a hero, her veneration even becoming religious. Her last visit to Maryland was made in December, 1860, and in spite of the agitated condition of the country and the great watchfulness of slaveholders she brought away with her seven fugitives, one of them an infant.

After the war Harriet Tubman made Auburn her home, establishing there a refuge for aged Negroes. She married again, so that she is sometimes referred to as Harriet Tubman Davis. She died at a very advanced age March 10, 1913. On Friday, June 12, 1914, a tablet in her honor was unveiled at the Auditorium in Albany. It was provided by the Cayuga County Historical Association, Dr. Booker T. Washington was the chief speaker of the occasion, and the ceremonies were attended by a great crowd of people.

The tributes to this heroic woman were remarkable. Wendell Phillips said of her: "In my opinion there are few captains, perhaps few colonels, who have done more for the loyal cause since the war began, and few men who did before that time more for the colored race than our fearless and most sagacious friend, Harriet." F. B. Sanborn wrote that what she did "could scarcely be credited on the best authority." William H. Seward, who labored, though unsuccessfully, to get a pension for her granted by Congress, consistently praised her noble spirit. Abraham Lincoln gave her ready audience and lent a willing ear to whatever she had to say. Frederick Douglass wrote to her: "The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at 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. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and footsore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt 'God bless you' has been your only reward."

Of such mould was Harriet Tubman, philanthropist and patriot, bravest and noblest of all the heroines of freedom.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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