Posts Tagged ‘Underground Railroad’

Harriet Tubman, an American hero

July 24, 2016


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.


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.


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.


A 20th century underground railroad

February 26, 2013

I have been reading The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson about the migration of black people in the 20th century from the South to the North and West.   I intend to post a review of it tomorrow, but there was a particular passage that was so fascinating that it deserves a separate post.

A brave black editor in Mississippi named Arrington High wrote a newsletter attacking segregation.  In 1957, he wrote an article exposing white segregationist politicians who patronized a black whorehouse.  The authorities had him declared insane and committed to a state mental institution, where he could expect to spend the rest of his life at hard labor.

the-warmth-of-other-suns_s6c10The asylum put patients to work on farms owned by the state.  One of High’s chores was to get up at 5 a.m. and milk the cows.  One morning early in 1958, instead of going to the barn, he walked down a deserted path to a row of automobiles, with four white drivers and a black driver.  He got in beside the black driver, and the caravan was waved through by the armed guard at the gate.  They drove to the Alabama line, where he got out of the car, walked across the line and joined another caravan with Alabama license plates.

They took him to a black funeral home.   He was told to lay down in a pine coffin with breathing holes.  The coffin was sealed shut and flowers were put on top.  The coffin was put in a hearse and driven to a railway station, where it was shipped to Chicago and opened 15 hours later by waiting friends.

The whole story reminds me of someone escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.  In the 1970s, the Soviet Union also dealt with dissidents by having them declared insane.  There was a medical diagnosis called “sluggish schizophrenia,” a unique form of supposed mental illness which had no symptoms.   But I suppose it was a sign of progress, both in Mississippi and Russia that there came a time when dissidents were railroaded into mental institutions rather than being killed out of hand.   And progress did not stop there.  The changes that have taken place in the American South and in Russia during my lifetime are a reminder that freedom and democracy are not hopeless causes.

As Wilkerson pointed out, the hearse technique was used by the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves out of the South before the Civil War.  The precision with which Arrington High’s escape was organized indicates that there was another underground railroad operating in the 20th century.   Wilkerson couldn’t get anybody to tell her details “in case, it would seem, it might need to be used again.”