Posts Tagged ‘Harriet Tubman’

Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016

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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.

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What’s so remarkable about Harriet Tubman?

June 5, 2016
This is not how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

This is NOT how Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill

I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill.  During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.

What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.

She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense.  She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer.  A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.

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She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross.  At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped.  Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.

Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead.  She said the blow “broke my skull.”  She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life.  A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.

Harriet_Tubman_Locations_MapIn 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman.  Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult.   She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.

Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today.  Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.

Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times.  Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.

Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee.   She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.

She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out.  This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.

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