September 24, 2015
Freedom. She could taste it. Araminta and her brothers had quietly slipped off the plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, unnoticed. The 90-mile trip to Philadelphia was physically taxing and fraught with the constant fear of capture. Her brothers began to have second thoughts as a $300 bounty was put on their heads and posted in the Cambridge Democrat newspaper. It was enough to turn anyone around. Anyone except Araminta, that is.
Araminta, or “Minty”, was placed in a very difficult position. She was as close as she had ever been to freedom, yet she couldn’t let her brothers venture back on their own. Risking her own capture, Minty traveled back with her brothers to ensured their safe return before setting out again, this time alone, on that fateful September day in 1849.
Running through the woods Minty recalled how close her family had been to freedom already. Her father, Benjamin Ross, had been freed at age 45 upon the death of his owner. With a wife and children still enslaved, he had little choice if he wanted to keep the family together. Working for his former owners as a timber estimator and foreman seemed to be his only option. Minty herself had technically been born free as her mother, Harriet Green, had also been released by a previous owner before her birth. Maybe it would have been better if she hadn’t hired that lawyer to look into her mother’s status. At least they wouldn’t have discovered the will Harriet’s new owners ignored. Even Minty’s husband of 5 years was a free man yet would not come with her on her liberating journey.
Branches and twigs scrapped and tugged at her skin, as if holding her back to the life of captivity she had always known. As she raced through the forest towards her deliverance she was taken back to a morning as a young child when she was lashed 5 times before breakfast. The scars of that day, both mental and physical, still remained with her these 20 years later. Just a little further and that life would be nothing but an unpleasant memory.
She coughed and wiped her forehead with her sleeve, praying her recent illness did not return, stealing what energy she still had. Sickly slaves were not desired property, let alone good escapees. As she smoothed her hair back, her hand brushed the head injury she received as a teenager. It seemed like yesterday she defended the slave who left the plantation without permission. She just could not bring herself to hold him down so the overseer could whip him. The iron weight he hurled at her, striking her unconscious, would forever imprint her life with severe headaches, seizures, and narcoleptic episodes. But all would be all right soon. She said a prayer to God for strength and faith, took one last drink of water and then set her sights on the Northern Star.
There wasn’t any difference in the landscape when she stepped from Maryland into Pennsylvania. The birds sang the same songs and the trees swayed in the same wind. There was no fanfare or celebration. But from the moment Minty’s foot touched the ground in the free state of Pennsylvania, her life completely changed. She had reached the Promise Land.
When she became a wife, she took her husband’s name. It seemed appropriate to make a similar revision now. Admiring her mother’s boldness, Minty decided to use her mother’s name as well. Goodbye to the slave life of Arminta Ross. Welcome to the free life of Harriet Tubman.
As Harriet gained her own freedom, the Underground Railroad was doing its best to provide safe passage for escaped slaves in search of freedom. It was hindered in September of 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring the capture of escaped slaves in Northern states. Law enforcement officials were forced to cooperate in the search and arrest of runaway slaves regardless of how they felt personally about the issue. Sizable rewards enticed many to grab any Negro they saw which sometimes included legally free blacks. Those who provided food and shelter could now be punished with steep fines and possible jail time. Fugitive slaves and free blacks fled to Canada, with the tracks of the Underground Railroad soon following behind.
Her first mission was to return to Maryland to retrieve her niece, Kessiah, and her family. Over the next 8 years she earned the title of ‘Conductor’ of the Underground Railroad, guiding at least 19 trips back into slave states. During the course of conducting the railroad she brought her parents, several siblings and family members, along with hundreds of other souls to a life of liberty in the North.
When she returned, it was to the home lent to her by Senator William H Seward. Seward, a member of the newly formed abolitionist Republican Party, was as determined to end slavery as she was. She could never repay him for offering his house to her on the outskirts of Auburn, New York, so she could retrieve her parents from Canada to come live with her in a free state. She could only offer thanks to God for such a man and a political party established on the primary objective to abolish slavery.
Her years of conducting the railroad had led to the freedom for many, but also a $40,000 bounty on her head. This reward made each crusade into the South even riskier than the one before.
She knew she was preparing for her last voyage into the South to rescue slaves yearning for the freedom she so treasured. Straightening up her room, she found herself humming, "Go Down, Moses". Pausing for a moment, she realizing how powerful and strengthening this spiritual had been to the refugees during their travels. Young and old affectionately referred to her as the "Moses of her people," as she led the exodus of Negros out of bondage and to the land of liberty.
Before leaving her home, she reached for her most important item, her trusty pistol. Checking the barrel, she held the gun with a steady hand, sure of her ability to defend herself when required. She never would have used it on her brothers, but she could never risk any of her other travelers changing their minds. She mouthed her mantra, “Dead Negros tell no tales.” More than one escapee had had that pistol in their face and told “you’ll be free or die a slave”. The risk to herself and the entire Underground Railroad if a slave returned or was caught was too great and would not be tolerated. She never lost a traveler or allowed one to turn back. She took one last look at her room, took a deep breath, and shut the door.
Harriet looked out across her little tract of land she just purchased from Senator Seward. He was so generous to let her stay there for two years but Seward had taken a great risk selling her the home, as it was illegal to do. For the first time Harriet had hope for the future as members of his new party were honest in their efforts to help the Negro and view them as equals. Prayers were needed for the upcoming election next year. Her conducting days were over but she was in no way done with her service.
The summer heat was beginning the rise on the June 1863 day as Harriet scouted the Combahee River shoreline from her gunboat for rebel placed torpedoes. Harriet left her home, which had become a place of refuge and shelter for poor and needy Negros, to offer her services to President Lincoln and the Union Army at the beginning of the war. Cooking for and nursing soldiers was noble, but guiding an expedition into South Carolina to free slaves and disrupt rebel supply lines was the lifeblood of America’s Moses. She glanced over to her friend Col. James Montgomery, whom she personally requested to command the 150 Negro Union soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina regiment in this mission. It didn’t faze Harriet this was the first armed expedition led by a woman. No, her heart was beating to the rhythm of “My people must go free.”
As the Union gunboat made its way up the river, slaves fled from the fields afraid that they would be spotted by a ship commanded by the horned and tailed Northern soldiers. But as the slaves saw Harriet standing at the bow of the lead ship, they broke from the tree line, waving to the ships. Word quickly spread among the slaves that these were “Lincoln’s gunboats come to set them free”. Upon that revelation the Negros grabbed what clothes, food, and other supplies they could and sprinted towards the boats. Harriet laughed with joy as women ran with pigs, chickens and children hanging from their necks and dresses. Over 700 slaves rushed the gunboats scrambling for a coveted spot to freedom. True to her character, America’s Moses made sure not a soul was left.
Harriet continued her work of service and kindness, along with suffrage and activism, until being admitted to the ‘Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged’ built on land she gave to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903. Surrounded by family and friends, she declared, “I go to prepare a place for you,” just before she took her last breath on March 10, 1913. She was now truly free.
The 1869 publication of the Sarah Bradford book entitled, “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” brought Harriet revenue sales, donations, recognition, and much needed financial relief, but her heart always seemed to be greater than her pocketbook. She died virtually penniless. A genuine hero, she rightly received a burial with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. Her tombstone reads: Servant of God, Well Done.
In 1990, Congress passed a bill signed by President George H. W. Bush declaring March 10th Harriet Tubman Day. New York State established it as a holiday in 2003.
Liberty, life is not perfect. Everyone has hardships and setbacks, but what determines our character is our reaction and our perseverance in those struggles. Harriet Tubman was a slave. She received debilitating injuries and unthinkable treatment, yet throughout her life she happily and eagerly served God. God was her master, not a slave owner. It is this devotion, this love, this servitude that we are also commanded to willing take upon our shoulders as followers of Christ. And when you get weak or discouraged, look to the Cross and remember the sacrifice of the perfect servant. He will give you strength.
That’s my 2 cents.