As Ghana is the only African country left in the World Cup competition, now seems like a good time to honour the other 19th Century Harriet who, like Harriet Beecher-Stowe, fought for the freedom of slaves in the United States.
Although little is known of Harriet Tubman’s origins, including the actual year of her birth, it is said that her maternal grandmother Modesty - who arrived in America on a slave ship - was of Ashanti origin, and was probably captured in what is now Ghana.
Born a slave in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to eventually become one of the main conductors of the Underground Railroad, a nurse and a spy during the Civil War, and a suffragist.
In 1849, as was frequently the case following the death of a slave’s master, Harriet was going to be sold and separated from her family. A fighter who had learned from her mother the power of action, rather than passively waiting for that fate to become hers, Harriet chose to escape. A runaway notice published two weeks following her escape describes her as being about 27 year old, of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5.2 feet high.
The same notice also described her two brothers, Harry and Ben who escaped with her. A $100 reward was promised to whoever would help capture any one of the fugitives. Shortly following the issue of that notice, Ben had a change of heart, having left behind a young wife and a new-born. But he could not return alone, so the three siblings went back to Maryland.
It did not take long before Harriet escaped again, setting out on foot. This time she was alone and entrusted her fate to the various agents, conductors and other activists who all played a role in supporting the Underground Railway. The Maryland Quaker community was quite involved in helping runaway slaves. Harriet would walk by night, and rest during the day, and eventually arrived in Philadelphia where she could live as a free person.
There, Harriet started working and saved every penny she could. That money was to help accomplish her goal: go back to Maryland and help her family escape.
And back to Maryland she did go, not just once, but a few times. Each trip made her braver and more determined. Each trip, she escorted family members on the road that would lead them to freedom. Brothers Ben, Harry and their families were among those she helped. When family members decided not to go, she found volunteers to take their place.
Harriet had become one of the Underground Railroad conductors - the conductors were the ones who would escort runaway slaves - and as such was known as Moses. For eleven years, Harriet led slaves to freedom, encouraging and directing them, showing them the way, and when necessary using the threat of a convincing pistol to dissuade any slave who wanted to turn around and go back. There was no going back. She is said to have made the trip up to 13 times, and helped more than 60 slaves to escape, including her family members.
They would prefer the winter months as chances of meeting people walking around at night were much less likely. They would also usually escape over the weekend, as it gave the fugitives two days before their escape could be reported in the newspapers.
As more and more slaves escaped, Harriet’s fame grew and the possibility of her being recognized became a real concern. But she knew how to respond to emergencies. Once, when sitting next to someone who could have recognized her, she just picked up a newspaper, and pretended to read. She was publically known as illiterate. Her reading made her a different person.
10 years following her escape, Harriet had not only guided over 60 slaves to freedom, she had also managed to put away enough money to buy a piece of land in Auburn, New York. The land became a refuge for the family and runaway slaves.
The Civil War brought Tubman back south, where she became a nurse in Port Royal, South Carolina. She also led a group of scouts and help map the terrain around Port Royal, and in June 1863 led an armed assault on a group of plantations along the Combahee River Raid. As a result of that raid, more than seven hundred slaves were rescued.
In the 1890’s, Harriet joined the cause of women’s suffrage, and became a regular speaker during meetings advocating the right to vote for women.
A banner in Peekskill, NY, serves as a reminder that the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many a fugitive who reached Peekskill would look for McGregory Brook, which they knew they would need to follow upstream to arrive at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. A network of AME Zion Churches quickly had developed following the establishment of the first Church in Philadelphia in 1816 by former slave Richard Allen. Church members made it their mission to assist runaway slaves.
The Peekskill AME Zion Church, established in 1852, still stands on Park Street, but the original building is now occupied by the Church of the Comforter, while the AME Zion Church congregation moved to the building next door, the former St. Peter and Paul’s Church. According to the Peekskill banner remembering Tubman, Harriet is said to have been a member of the congregation, although she settled with her family further North, in Auburn, NY.