The Legacy of Harriet Tubman

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Harriet Tubman became known as the "Moses" of her people because of her work helping her family escape slavery on the Underground Rail Road.

Born a slave in the early 1820's, near Cambridge, Araminta Ross known by many as "Minty" and who later took the name Harriet became known as the "Moses" of her people because of her work helping her family escape slavery on the Underground Rail Road.

Harriet was apprenticed to a weaver but spent much of her childhood helping her father cutting lumber in the forests of Dorchester County. When she was twelve an angry overseer struck her in the head leaving a visible dent and causing her to suffer from seizures for most of her life. In 1844 Harriet was allowed to marry a man named John Tubman. But, when her owner died she was left in his will to his young son. By the time the estate was fully settled she had been treated as the property of a number of people. Finally when she was set to be sold, she resolved to escape this inhumane situation.

She explained it to her biographer Sarah Bradford this way: "I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me."

Harriet Tubman escaped through the swamps and forests of Delmarva making her way to Philadelphia. For most people that would have been as much a miracle as they could have expected. For most people the wilderness would be a frightening place to travel while being chased. But Harriet was indomitable. Her knowledge of the land and the rhythms of the earth and sky gave her confidence. Once she had figured it out for herself and had made the necessary connections to friends on the Under Ground Railroad, she resolved to go back for many other members of her family. And she did.

Then Harriet went on to use her knowledge of surviving and traveling in the wilderness to become a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. She went to South Carolina where she helped devise a military strategy to lead black Union troops in battle and liberated hundreds of slaves in the process. She is said to be the first African American woman to officially serve in the US Military. Sadly it took until 2003 and Congressional action to finally pay her the pension she should have received.

Harriet's life altogether was an experience of great struggles and sacrifice. Once free she risked capture fighting courageously to end slavery. Her husband John Tubman and she became separated during the Civil War and he passed away during that time. After the war, she worked for women's suffrage; going from obscure poverty to great celebrity traveling the lecture circuit with her inspirational story. Eventually she married again, to a man named Nelson Davis, and she settled down to live in Auburn, New York. She owned her own home there, taking in relatives and friends who needed help. Late in life she endowed a home for the care of aged African Americans. She was a dedicated member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Hers' was a life of service.

Tubman site under constructionIt is ironic that even in death there have been struggles for ownership of her legacy. Admirers in both New York and Maryland wanted her to be remembered with a monument and park, not to mention the money that federal support and tourism would bring with it. What resulted is the Underground Railroad Byway, a tour travelers can drive between the two regions with tributes at both ends. Here on Delmarva there are several places with historic markers and sites history buffs can visit.

There have been debates about whether to put her park in Madison where she was born and where there is now a monument, in Bucktown where she lived later, or in downtown Cambridge where ther is a small museum in her honor. The location of the new state and federally funded museum has been set for the edge of the Blackwater Refuge with hopes of drawing day trippers out to take in both the history and the wildlife of the region. I drove by there recently. Construction is well under way with hopes of the place opening in the Spring of 2016.

President Obama gave a speech in 2013 at its dedication quoting another Delmarva native and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass who wrote this to Harriet Tubman in 1868: "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."

I suspect if she were alive today Harriet Tubman would be pleased that her final place of honor here on Delmarva should be so closely associated with the Blackwater Refuge. I think she would want people to have a greater connection to the environment, because it was her knowledge of the wild places of Delmarva that enabled her to survive and prevail.

This week (April18, 2016) it was announced by the US Treasury Department that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by the year 2020. In honor of this distinction here is our story from last fall about Delmarva’s one and only Harriet Tubman. Building construction on the new state park’s visitor center was completed this past March (2016) and exhibits are now being created with an eye toward a grand opening in the spring of 2017.

Visit these links and historic sites along the Underground Railroad Byway throughout Delmarva and beyond: