SHE WAS CALLED ‘MOSES’: HARRIET TUBMAN (1821/22 – 1913)

I made a brief introduction to slavery earlier when I spoke of the life and times of William Wilberforce. In this article, I look at the story of a woman whose labour and efforts to rescue slaves from captivity made her to get the nickname- ‘Moses’.

Birth

Harriet Tubman was born around the year 1822 to Ben Ross and Harriet Green, who were both slaves in the Madison area of Dorchester County, Maryland, United States of America. She was named Araminta (or ‘Minty’ for short) when she was born. Due to the slave status of her parents (which was automatically passed on to her and her siblings at birth), the exact year of Harriet’s birth is unknown, as the slave owners did not bother to keep a record of such ‘unimportant’ issues. Life was difficult and unpredictable for Harriet’s parents as they saw their children taken away from them into slavery. Edward Brodes, their owner, sold three of Harriet’s sisters into slavery. It was a very difficult sight for Harriet to watch. In her own words,

“I had two sisters carried away in a chain gang. One of them left two children. We were always uneasy”.

Harriet never forgot the cry of her sisters as they were being carried away into slavery in far-away lands. Though quite young at the time, the impression this left in her heart was a deep desire to be free from all these hassles. She longed and prayed for a day when she and the members of her family will be free.  

Growing Up

For Harriet, life was not going to be either easy or fair. At the age of 5, he was hired out to a woman to look after that woman’s child. Whenever the child cried, Harriet was flogged. One day, Harriet was tempted to take some sugar from the woman’s sugar bowl. The woman caught her and was about to punish her when she ran away. She stayed in hiding for about 5 days until driven out by hunger, she had no choice but to face her punishment. That day she was mercilessly beaten with a rawhide, and she got marks on her body that stayed with her for the rest of her life.

At the age of 13, another terrible thing happened to her. She was caught up in an incident where she refused to help stop a slave boy that was escaping. As the boy was attempting to flee, a 2-pound weight that was aimed at the boy accidentally hit her squarely on her forehead. This broke her skull and forced her head to bleed. After the wound had been treated, however, she went back to work. That incident cause her to suffer sudden seizures and fainting spells intermittently which she had for the rest of her life.

In the midst of all these, one thing was constant about the young Harriet, and that was her walk with God. Harriet was taught by her believing parents to talk to God, and right in the years of her childhood, Harriet kept up her communion with God. She talked with God concerning every single issue that happened in her life, and like many slaves who also knew God, that gave her strength in the midst of great trials.

Getting Married

At age 23, Harriet got married to John Tubman, a young man 5 years her senior. John was a free man (because his mother was a free woman – and the status of the mother affected the baby). However, despite being married to John, Harriet remained the property of her masters. Marriage under slavery was a complicated issue. The union was not respected by state laws on slavery. Any slave could be sold at any time away from her husband and her children, with no regards to the emotional pains and sadness. Thus, Harriet knew that though married to a free man, she herself was not free.

“Liberty or Death!”

In 1849, Harriet’s master died leaving his estate in debt. The implication was that Harriet and her brothers, as well as other slaves, may have to be sold in order to help pay off the debtors. This fired up Harriet’s desire to be free. It was then she started plotting seriously for her freedom. In her own words, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to – Liberty of Death! If I could not have one, I could have the other.”

She intimated her husband of her desire to escape from slavery, but her he refused to go with her or to let her go. He was comfortable with his state and did not want to try anything risky. In fact, he even threatened to report Harriet if she tried to do that. Thus, on the very night of her escape from the slave house, Harriet had to sneak out from her husband’s place – all by herself, then she would meet up with her brothers at an agreed upon location so that they would escape to the underground railroad. However, as the cleared sight of the plantation where they worked as slaves, Harriet’s brothers became worried about what would happen if they were caught. Thus, they decided that it was too risky to attempt the journey, and so they turned back to their slave quarters and to safety. But Harriet, with a mind made up to be either free or die, headed out into the night, and like Abraham of old, not knowing what she would experience, but with an eye set on something in the far horizon, but something that was possible if she could persevere.

The Underground Railroad

 Whenever I study history, I keep on asking myself the following: what king of history am I creating? On what side of history am I? Every blessed day as we lived our lives, we are creating history, and the wonder is to perceive what side in history are we – the good side or the bad side? The Underground Railroad was a network of free people – whites and blacks who did not believe in slavery. Thus, the worked together, at risk to their lives, to help slaves escape to Northern America, and then to freedom. Chief among the people of the underground Railroad were the Christian group called ‘the Quakers’. Having studied their Bibles well, the Quakers came to understand that slavery was against the word of God. Thus, quite very early in the journey, all Quakers freed their slaves, and it became a sin for any Quaker to own a slave. Being free from this menace of being slave owners, the Quakers played a very active role in helping fleeing slaves get to freedom. It was a Quaker woman working with the Underground Railroad that offered Harriet Tubman to come to her house anytime she desires to become a free woman.

The Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, played a great role in fighting slavery in ancient times.

Freedom!

Thus, that night, Harriet went all alone to the Quaker woman’s house, who gave her a change of clothing, gave her some instructions on how to get to the next place of safety. That night, Harriet began her long trek to freedom; she was advised, like every other fleeing slave to follow the North star. The trek to freedom was not an easy one. Travelling was mostly done at night, and one risked being caught and punished severely. Harriet, however, was helped greatly by men and women of the Underground Railroad who provided her with food, shelter and moral support intermittently along the way; until after many weeks of travel she reached safely to Pennsylvania – the Northern border – and to freedom. She was free!

In her own words, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was a glory over everything! The sum came like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in Heaven!”

William Still was the secretary of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and helped to document the story of escaping slaves. He remarked that the story of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery was a story of courage second to none. She did what even men would not dare to do.

Harriet worked as a domestic servant in Pennsylvania and earned some money to take care of herself. However, her heart was not at home. She still thought of her family who were still in slavery, and she wished they will be free.

“I want to go back!”

Soon, news reached Harriet that her brothers were to be sold to the South, and she decided to go back to her place of slavery in order to rescue her brothers and family members. Despite William Still’s advice against that, because it was too risky, Harriet Tubman decided to go back, trusting the Lord to keep her safe. In her own words, “It wasn’t me; it was the Lord. I always told him, ‘I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me.’ And he always did!”

So, she went back that period, and rescued her brothers and her sister with her children to freedom. Rescuing her family was her first mission ever as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. This began Harriet’s mission of rescuing slaves and bringing them to freedom. Harriet kept going back, at risk to her life, in order to liberate more slaves. Escapes were usually planned Saturday nights, so that they slaves would have been gone a day or more before the Monday newspapers will carry report of a missing slave. Harriet carried a gun with her, not just for her enemies, but to also stop fleeing slaves who out of tiredness of fear suddenly want to go back to their master’s place. She did this for fear that if those slaves go back, they may betray the whereabouts of others. Thus, with the gun, she forced every escaping slave to follow her till they got to freedom.

“Go down, Moses!”

It was not long afterwards, the United States of America passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it legal to go after fleeing slaves, catch them and punish them. According to the law, slaves were properties of their masters, and by running away, they were stealing from their masters and should be punished. This made it unsafe to keep any fleeing slave in the United States, and the underground Railroad were forced to extend their services all the way to Canada where slaves can be set free.

Due to Harriet Tubman’s many raids, hundreds of slaves were able to escape from their masters and this became a serious concern to slave owners. The legend was making waves among the slaves of a certain ‘Moses’ who comes down to liberate them from captivity. The slaves even devised codes and songs to know when Harriet was around the corner, so that those interested can escape to freedom.

When the slave owners found out that the ‘Moses’ was actually Harriet Tubman, they put out notices every where declaring her wanted and offering a mouth-watering sum of money for anyone who would help them locate her. This did not deter Harriet. She continued moving back right under their noses in order to rescue more slaves. She disguised herself at times like a man, other times like an old woman, etc. The wisdom and Spirit of God guided her, and she never used a route twice.

Harriet Tubman eventually did up to 20 trips to the South to rescue slaves, and she freed up to 300 slaves, including her mother and father. In her own words, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say: I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” Such was the testimony of God’s help over her life as she took great risks to rescue slaves to freedom.

Civil War

During the American Civil War, which was fought over slavery, Harriet helped the war both as a nurse and a spy for the Union Army. At one time, she led an armed expedition to rescue a record 750 slaves in one of the most daring slave rescue operations in history. This made her one of the few American women to ever lead soldiers into battle. In all these, she was not seen as military personnel and received neither salary nor pension. She had to support herself with some side businesses while she did all these.

Harriet was one of the few women that ever led an armed expedition which led to the freedom of over 750 slaves

After the War and Other Matters

Harriet’s first marriage was a flop. When she came back later to rescue her husband, John Tubman, she discovered that the man had remarried and wound not go with her. This hurt Harriet so much, but she decided not to make a case out of it. 6 years later, the man died in a street quarrel that led into a fight. After the Civil War, Harriet went back home, where she later remarried to Mr. Nelson Charles Davis, and adopted a daughter.

Harriet always believed she would live to see the end of legal slavery in America, and she did. In the years to come, President Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation decree declaring all slaves free.

Harriet continued her work in later years, working with freed slaves to help them have a better life after slavery, as well as working with the Women Suffrage, sharing her stories and inspiring women all over America.

Having spent her life for the cause the Lord brought her, Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 at approximately 90 years of age. A former slave, unable to read and write, and underpaid; yet, she braced her world to take her place in the scheme of the Eternal designs of God for mankind. Not giving excuses, not giving in to fear, Harriet brought liberty to her world. She was laid to rest in military honours.

Now, what about you?

There is no greater enemy to destiny than that enemy called fear. It makes men to stay down when they should rise up. It makes men to cower under opposition, and it makes men listen to discouraging voices telling them not to attempt the visions of God in their hearts. Thus, every one who must fulfill destiny needs these three things: courage, persuasion and wisdom. Courage will help you overcome the challenges posed by your enemies and the world around you. Persuasion will help you not to give in to discouraging voices from even those you love. Then wisdom is the principal thing, as it will guide your steps in life.

All these, however, comes from a personal relationship with God. No one is able to fulfill the programme of God for his life, if he does not cultivate a working, consistent fellowship with the Lord. For all the virtues needed to take your place and live up to your potential flows from Him. 

May our hearts be encouraged in these times, and may our vision be thoroughly set, as we rise to fulfill the programme of God concerning our lives. Amen.

FOR FURTHER CONSULTATIONS

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlXGK2wi5oM&t=768s
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIyMMgsvvCA
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman
  4. https://www.biography.com/activist/harriet-tubman
Joshua Obodozie resides in Enugu, Nigeria, West Africa. He is a believer in Christ Jesus and in the authority of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. He is the chief editor of THE CHRISTIAN IN SOCIETY (www.thechristianinsociety.org) an online blog that reaches thousands of Nigerians and Africans with the word of God. He is also a Materials Engineer by profession.

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