What did you learn about Harriet Tubman in school? That she ran away from slavery, then risked her own freedom to free others? One sentence, two, if that?
A new film, “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo, is meant to flesh out the Wikipedia entry of Tubman’s life story.
“Playing her was tough and exhilarating,” Erivo told correspondent Martha Teichner. “I saw her as a young woman who had a force of will that was almost unbreakable. And she was a superhero because of that.”
The more you discover about Tubman, the more you realize she had to be a superhero to pull off exploits it would be an understatement to say were daring.
This tiny woman who could neither read nor write now has not one, but two national parks dedicated to her story, plus the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on the eastern shore of Maryland, where she was born Araminta Ross – Minty for short – around 1822.
“Minty’s life as a slave was horrific,” said Kate Clifford Larson, Tubman’s biographer: “It was brutal. It was cruel.”
Her parents were enslaved on different plantations, hours apart. She and her mother were owned by Edward Brodess, who made $60 a year renting her out, starting when she was six.
“She talked about how lonely and sad she was when she was separated from her mother, and how she would cry herself to sleep at night,” Clifford Larson said.
And then came the day when she was about 13 that she walked into the Bucktown Village Store, just as an overseer was trying to catch a runaway.
“When the overseer picked up one of these store weights, a 2-pound weight, and he threw it, intending to hit the young man who was fleeing, Tubman stepped back into the doorway, and it slammed right into her skull,” said Clifford Larson.
For the rest of her life, Harriet Tubman had sudden, epileptic seizures, and visions she said were from God. [Harriet was her mother’s name; Minty began calling herself that when she married John Tubman.]
In 1849 she escaped from a place called Poplar Neck, in Caroline County, Maryland, when word reached her that she was going to be sold South.
Just look at a map, and imagine Harriet, in her 20s, running away, alone, on foot. She managed, with the help of the Underground Railroad, to make it a hundred miles to the Pennsylvania border, and freedom.
But then Tubman went back – 13 times over 10 years – leading more than 70 people to freedom.
And during the Civil War, she became the 1st American woman to lead troops into battle, near Beaufort, S.C.
Clifford Larson said, “They blew up a bridge; they liberated 750 enslaved people off the plantations along that river. And the newspapers at the time wrote about this raid, and they credited the raid to the “black she-Moses.”
Harriet Tubman had an amazing, Forrest Gump-like ability to be at the center of history, her friends among its key figures, including abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Tubman was also a passionate campaigner for women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony.
She spent the last 50 years of her remarkable life in Auburn, New York, a haven for a number of progressive causes. It was where William Henry Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and his wife, Frances, offered their friendship and support.
“It was known that Harriet Tubman was looking to place her family somewhere, and to plant roots somewhere, to build a home for herself,” said Jeff Ludwig, education director at the Seward House Museum there. The Sewards offered to sell her seven acres of land. A black woman, technically a fugitive slave, buying a farm – unheard of.
In 1869, she got married again, to Nelson Davis, more than 20 years her junior.
In her 70s she opened an old age home for formerly enslaved people, and an infirmary providing free healthcare to anyone, black or white.
“She was a lightning rod for change,” said Karen Vivian Hill, who heads the Harriet Tubman Home. “She was the Serena Williams of her time, okay? Bold, bad, black, beautiful.”
We know she was deeply religious, and that she had secret pleasures. Hill said, “Strawberries were her favorite dessert, so we found strawberry seeds all over the property, and blue and white china, which is so unlike Harriet for her to have this affection for these very fine things.”
So, who was Harriet Tubman really? To Judith Bryant, she was Aunt Harriet: “I’m a great-great-grandniece,” she said. Descended from Harriet’s brother, William Henry Stewart, she’s got bragging rights, but chooses not to brag. “It’s my family,” said Bryant. “People always say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were related to Harriet Tubman.’ ‘Of course, you didn’t, but I did! We did!'”
She invokes her famous relative when things go right: “We have this expression, I do, that Harriet’s working overtime. She’s sort of my guardian angel.”
Tough and resolute to the very end, Tubman died in Auburn on March 10, 1913. She was 91 or thereabouts. Her funeral was a major event.
Harriet Tubman’s grave has become a destination, a shrine for visitors in need of a hero. But her epitaph reads simply: “Servant of God. Well done.”
When asked how she feels when visiting her grave site, Bryant said, “Proud. Proud.”
For more info:
- Harriet Tubman Historical Society
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, Church Creek, Md.
- Bucktown Village Store, Cambridge, Md. (Bucktown Village Foundation)
- Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Dorchester County, Md.
- Underground Railroad: Jacob and Hannah Leverton Home, Preston, Md.
- Caroline County (Md.) Historical Society
- Maryland Office of Tourism
- Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, Auburn, N.Y. (National Park Service)
- Harriet Tubman House, Auburn, N.Y.
- The AME Zion Church, Auburn, N.Y.
- Seward House Museum, Auburn, N.Y.
- “Harriet” opens in theatres on November 1 (Focus Features)
To watch a trailer for “Harriet” click on the video player below.
Story produced by Robbyn McFadden.