In 1849, at the age of twenty nine, give or take a year, Harriet Tubman escaped the system of institutionalized slavery in the state of Maryland and ran for freedom in Pennsylvania. Ms. Tubman made extensive use of the famous Underground Railroad network. It is believed that she took a common route for fleeing slaves which was northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania.
It was a journey of nearly ninety miles. Traveling by foot it would take a person between five days and three weeks. She traveled at night guided by the North Star. She had to avoid slave catchers that were just all too eager to collect a reward for the return of a fugitive slave. Through a variety of deceptions a number of people helped to hide, protect, and move her. At one house, Ms. Tubman hid in plain sight sweeping the yard to make it appear as though she belonged to the home owners. When night fell, she was hidden in a cart and taken to the next friendly house. The true particulars of her escape remain a mystery. But she admitted that she crossed into Pennsylvania with an overwhelming sense of liberation. Said Ms. Tubman, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
But it wasn’t enough for Ms. Tubman just to be free. Immediately after reaching the city of Philadelphia, she began thinking of her family. Said Ms. Tubman, “I was a stranger in a strange land. My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.” No stranger to work, Ms. Tubman began to work odd jobs and save money. Shortly after her arrival, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forcing law enforcement officials throughout the entire union to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves and imposed heavy punishments on those who helped them escape. The law increased risks for escaped slaves. Many headed north to Canada.
In December of that year, Ms. Tubman received word that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold along with her two children, six-year-old James Alfred, and baby Araminta who remained in Cambridge, Maryland. Horrified at the prospect of having her family broken further apart, Ms. Tubman did something very remarkable. Ms. Tubman voluntarily returned to Maryland and risked her freedom. She went to Baltimore, where she hid her until the time of the sale of her relatives. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife. While he stalled to make arrangements to pay, Kessiah and her children disappeared to a nearby safe house. When night fell, Mr. Bowley ferried the family on a log canoe sixty miles to Baltimore. There they met Ms. Tubman, who led the family safely to Philadelphia.
In spring of 1851 Ms. Tubman headed back into the lion’s den of Maryland to guide her brother Moses and two other men to freedom. Word of her exploits had encouraged other blacks. As she led more blacks to freedom she became more confident with each trip into danger. Ms. Tubman risked making the ultimate sacrifice in order to help other enslaved black people. The ultimate sacrifice wasn’t death but the loss of her freedom and the return to cruel enslavement. But her sense of family and her sense of black community compelled her to do for others what she had managed to do for herself at great personal risk.
Ms. Tubman didn’t sit on her ass back in Philadelphia in relative comfort and safety, looking down her nose at other black people who were too afraid to muscle up the courage to make that dangerous trek on their own. It is seriously doubted if Ms. Tubman simply pointed to her success and said, “I did it! Why don’t you pull yourself up by your boot straps and show some personal responsibility?” Ms. Tubman would never have said something as selfish and uncompassionate as what some black conservatives say proudly to applause from their white mindset peers these days. She would never say something akin to “black people aren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of their predicament” or something as assinine as a “black woman will not be truly free from racial restrictions until she can, without guilt or regret, disclaim being black or owing anything to black people. Watch out for the man who says another man has no choice, that he owes a debt to the race.”
In fact, Ms. Tubman didn’t do much talking at all. She lived simply and did what she could to help others find their way. She put her most cherished possession, her freedom, on the line by venturing back to where many escaped slaves feared to tread. She didn’t do it for glory and she never stood in front of anybody to gain their favor. She simply did what she could. Black people everywhere learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. We were taught that stuff when we were knee high in school. But instead of learning from her model and learning what it means to actually help others in the black community we relegate her example to the deepest and darkest corners of our consciousness. It is as if many of us have gone through a Vulcan mind meld and have purged any connection of her from our own actions. We applaud her for her selflessness but exercise behavior that is the most remote from her example.
A lot of our modern black, or formerly black, brothers and sisters could learn a lot from this simple woman who is one of our most deserving ancestors whether we in the black community recognize and fully appreciate her sacrifices or not. Black people who have done well and who have achieved levels of success that many of us can only dream of turn back to the black community and say all the rhetorical things about what we should and shouldn’t do, while they sit on their ass in their own personal materialistic heaven. They have truly escaped the bonds that keep the majority of black people imbedded in a system of white privilege and black subjugation. They don’t feel the need to reach back into the black community to pull all the others who dream of true freedom. It’s far better for black people who have made it to sit back and berate other blacks for not being strong enough or fortunate enough or smart enough or bootlicking enough or tom enough.
Although it’s been a long time since anyone had to use the Underground Railroad to escape institutionalized slavery there is a need for another more modern Underground Railroad to help people in the black community escape the chains of enslavement that hold us back today. Some black people do reach back to help other black people. Some are a lot more involved with the black community than others. I know of a high profile black celebrity that talks about how she regularly cleans out her closet and donate clothing to help others. Harriet Tubman could’ve simply cleaned out her closet and call it a day. But she didn’t. She went considerably above the call of duty. She never did it for ego. She never gave one thought that it would make her the cherished ancestor she is today. She just did what she had to do to help others. More people should learn from her example.