Harriet Tubman, Liberator

Harriet Tubman’s life is one case where reality exceeds the legend. Although she led “only” about 70 slaves out of bondage (instead of the hundreds sometimes attributed to her), she lived for a half-century after her last liberation mission and continued to work in the same spirit of fiery determination for the betterment of African Americans, and African-American women in particular.

About those rescue missions, though: Tubman was unusual in that she returned repeatedly to the same area (Dorchester County, Maryland) where she had been enslaved. This was because most of her rescue missions were aimed a delivering family members from bondage—although in cases where that proved impossible, she liberated whoever she could. Returning to this area meant an even greater than usual chance of being caught and returned to slavery. One time she even met one of her old masters on the road: she made the chickens she was carrying start squawking,  pulled her bonnet down over her eyes, and walked on by. [1]

These missions quickly earned her a reputation as a new Moses. [2] Like Moses, she was driven by a religious faith in a God who had “come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians.” Tubman had many visions throughout her life, and she attributed her successes to the power of prayer, crying to God out of the deep. [3] As the abolitionist Thomas Garrett wrote of Tubman, “[S]he said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great.” [4] Indeed, she had the spirit of revelation, “by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.”

The skills that Tubman developed on her liberation raids proved useful in other contexts. John Brown—whom she greatly admired—hoped that she would help lead the raid on Harpers Ferry. (For reasons unknown, she didn’t). [5] Once, when officers in Troy, NY attempted to capture a fugitive slave named Charles Nalle, the five-foot-tall Tubman physically fought off the officers so that Nalle could escape. [6] During the Civil War she went to South Carolina, where she served the Union army as a scout, spy, nurse, and cook. [7] She became the first American woman to lead troops into combat when she planned and executed a successful raid designed to liberate slaves so that they could join the new African American regiments, along with destroying Confederate supplies. [8]

Tubman’s life after she had liberated herself from slavery was almost never easy. Always willing to work hard, finding financial means of support proved difficult, and she frequently had to rely on the generosity of white abolitionist friends like Lucretia Mott and eventual Secretary of State William Seward (who sold her a home on very generous terms). [9] She was known for using the funds she collected to help others, even when it meant her own poverty: she was like the widow at the Temple who gave all she had. [10] When, near the end of her life, the church to which she’d turned over the operation of a home for elderly African Americans wanted to charge a $100 entrance fee, she said, “I wanted to make a rule that nobody should come in unless they didn’t have no money at all.” [11]

Among the many forms of discrimination she faced, she also endured it from the very government for which she fought: despite years of petitioning, the army never paid her adequately for her military service. [12] Such experiences made her a committed fighter for civil rights. She wanted African Americans to get the vote, but she was dismayed when Frederick Douglass opted to pursue the vote for men only. [13] She believed that in the gospel there is neither bond nor free, neither male nor female: all are alike unto God. Few people have fought for this ideal with the vigor that Harriet Tubman did. May we rise to her example.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Harriet Tubman, liberator, suffragist, and civil rights activist, 1913

Exodus 3; Psalm 130; Mark 12:41-44; Galatians 3:26-29; 2 Nephi 26:23-33; D&C 8:1-5

The Collect: O God, deliverer of your people from bondage: grant that we, like your servant Harriet Tubman, might join together in the great gospel cause of liberation; that, with the Holy Spirit in our hearts and the courageous example of your Son in our minds we might forward the grand cause of Zion, where, one in heart and one in mind as you are One God, there will be no poor among us. Amen.

For the music, here is “Go Down, Moses,” which serves as the finale for Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra’s suite Harriet Tubman, and which Tubman would sing once her rescue operations had passed out of danger [14]:

And here is Grayston Ives’s “Out of the Deep,” a setting of Psalm 130 written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the UK’s abolition of the slave trade:

Notes

[1] Kate Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 125.

[2] Ibid., 100 and passim.

[3] On Tubman’s visions, see ibid., 158 and passim; on her prayers, ibid., 53 and passim.

[4] Quoted at ibid., 169.

[5] Ibid., chapter 8.

[6] Ibid., 179-83.

[7] Ibid., chapter 10.

[8] Ibid., 212-17.

[9] On Seward and Tubman’s home, see ibid., 163-66.

[10] Ibid., 192.

[11] Ibid., 285.

[12] Ibid., 208 and passim.

[13] Ibid., 272.

[14] Ibid., 188.

Comments

  1. A true hero. Inspiring.

  2. A great description of somebody who should be on the $20 bill instead of Andrew Jackson, who was basically a thug.

  3. Amen!

  4. Yes!!!

  5. Harriet Tubman was one of my daughter’s first heroes in life. She read about the underground railroad and Tubman’s determination at the age of 8. I love that she was apart of the Lectionary today.

  6. Thank you for this post.

  7. Chester Lee Hawkins says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful post, and I must say Harriet Tubman should have been on the “twenty dollar” bill, rather than Andrew Jackson. He put black slaves back into slavery, after their heroic battles in New Orleans. Harriet Tubman is my hero and always will be.