The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.
Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.
I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.
It is not just that those others were white, and she was black. It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman. She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor. Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power. She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.
What did her greatness consist of? Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.
As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped. Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.
During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom. During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.
She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand. She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God. She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.
Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1820 or 1822 under the name of Amarinta Ross, she was a defiant slave from earliest childhood and was frequently beaten and whipped.
Early in her life, an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead, fracturing her skull. She was given no medical treatment, but merely a few days to recover, after which she was sent back into the fields to work.
She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts the rest of her life. It is tempting to relate her visions to this, but great saints and prophets throughout history have had visions without being hit in the head.
In 1849, she decided to escape to the North. She told nobody until the last moment and, when she was going to say “goodbye” to her loved ones, a white slaveowner rode up. Rather than try to get past him, she communicated her intention by singing, “Bound for the Promised Land”.
She made it to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman. Most fugitives from slavery adopted new names for security reasons. Her position was as precarious as an unauthorized immigrant today. Under the laws of that era, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.
Instead of trying to keep herself safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue other enslaved people. She may have been the only fugitive slave who ventured back into slave territory to rescue other enslaved people.
Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, she led her newly free followers to St. Catherines, Ontario, where they would be safe from recapture. Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. She eventually brought out most of her family.
She was regarded as the head of the family, even by her parents.
She never told anybody how many trips she made or how many enslaved people she rescued. This was in order to protect those who helped her and to conceal her methods.
Biographers believe she made at least a dozen trips and brought out 70 or more enslaved people. They estimate that another 70 or so escaped based on information she provided.
All this time she supported herself by working as a domestic, cook and laundress.
What was truly remarkable was that she took the risk of going back to a place where she was known by sight. Her success is a tribute to her ingenuity and mastery of disguise. But it also may go to show how little attention white men paid to black people, especially to women.
Tubman traveled at night, and in the winter, when few people were out and about. She carried a gun at all times and, although she never had to shoot it out with slave catchers, there were times when she threatened to shoot members of her party who wanted to turn back.
For security reasons, she did not use her own name. Many knew her as “Moses” because, like the original Moses, she led people from bondage into freedom.
She communicated with hidden slaves by singing Gospel songs such as “Go Down, Moses” with her own verses or with special emphasis on certain verses that the slaves would understand, but the slaveowners would not.
She became friends with Frederick Douglass and other members of Underground Railroad, and earned the respect of the inner circle of abolitionists. She met and became friends with John Brown, who nicknamed her “General Tubman.” She helped recruit men for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Some biographers think she would have taken part in it herself, but for a missed communication.
During the Civil War, she joined Union troops and other abolitionist volunteers at Port Royal on the coast of South Carolina. She provided assistance to the escaped slaves and nursed sick and wounded Union troops, using her own herbal remedies.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized her to work as a spy and scout behind enemy lines. Along with others, she mapped enemy terrain and de-briefed escaped slaves.
She wasn’t paid for this work. She was allowed to draw rations but ceased doing this when some other black people accused her of having special privileges. Instead she paid her way by making and selling root beer and pies.
The high point of her Union service was when she guided a raid by boat up the Combahee River into the interior of South Carolina. The raid was conducted by a regiment of black soldiers led by Col. James Montgomery, who had previously fought with John Brown in Kansas and whom she previously knew
She had scouted out the land beforehand, and enabled the raiding party to avoid Confederate sentries and the mines set in the river. The raid liberated 750 slaves.
After the war, she retired to Auburn, New York, in a house that she bought from her friend William Henry Seward, former Governor of New York and Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet.
She achieved a certain amount of fame as her deeds became known. She used that fame to raise money for schools for freed slaves. She took part in the women’s rights movement, and helped give African-American women a voice within that movement.
As long as she was physically able, continued to earn her living by manual labor, plus a small government pension which she received late in life. Admirers and friends gave her money, but she never spent it on herself.
She took responsibility for a large extended family, including orphans she took in. She never saved any money, but spent it on those in need, trusting in the Lord to provide—which in fact usually happened.
She was a deeply religious person all her life. She prayed constantly, talked to God and believed that He answered her. She was devoted to Zion Methodist African Episcopal Church in Auburn, and spent her last days in church home for aged and infirm African-Americans for which she had raised the funds.
The teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is to take no thought of the morrow and to give what you have to those in need. She lived by that teaching.
One statement of Harriet Tubman sticks on my mind. 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 the one, I would have the other.
Dorchester County by Katie Ryder for Harper’s magazine. How Harriet Tubman is remembered in her birthplace.