By William “Duke” Smither
“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.” Harriet Tubman (a.k.a., “Black Moses”)
After my Baptist minister dad had died, when I was five, my maternal grandmother, a tent-preaching Pentecostal evangelist, often spoke favorably of one of his heroes Moses– the “law-giving prophet” who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, out of Egypt and into the desert for 40 long years, and to the edge of the “Promised Land,” a stone’s throw from the Jordan River, the land God promised Abraham, Issac and Jacob, according to the Bible.
Yet, I knew she resented my mother marrying a Baptist and felt it in her voice when she often reminded me that the Baptist denomination stemmed from “a religion named after a guy who had his head chopped off.”
But, I was too young to let it bother me. Besides, the stories she shared about why this Moses was his hero were always some of the most fascinating narratives within my mandated bible lessons. And, after a life-time of rebellious questioning the syntax and symbolism behind certain parabolic narrations, they remain just as captivating, today.
At an early age, I could appreciate the familiar symbolism I saw in the Jordan River flowing within the riverbanks and margins of African-American folklore; but, I never heard of its relationship to the Civil War, until I stumbled across some of the expanded exploits of the Underground Railroad’s “Black Moses.” Years ago, during some research on the Underground Railroad, I came across a reference to the Combahee River, in South Carolina, which referred to it as the “River Jordan.” The reference said that it was given that name by a Spanish explorer whom I later learned was Vasque d’ Ayllon, who used African labor to establish a settlement in what is now America, long before Jamestown and St. Augustine. However, why he called it such wasn’t exactly clear. And, it wasn’t exactly information you could find in classroom history books.
But, I knew of “Black Moses” through my family’s teachings. That was the nickname given to one feisty black woman, an escaped Maryland slave by the given name of Araminta Harriet Ross (b. circa, 1820, d. March 10, 1913), who later became a staunch supporter of the Abolitionist Movement, an official “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and a spy for the Union Army, during the Civil War, in the United States. While stationed in overseas, I recall some French-Algerian friends once reminding me that in some circles, she was also called, Noir Jeanne d’ Arc– the “Black Joan of Arc”- which was news to me.
In her younger life, she experienced hardships which seem to have strengthened her resolve for slave resistance. Legend has it that she was from Ashanti bloodline, a matrilineal society in Ghana, and she derived her courage from Modesty, her maternal grandmother, who came to America on a slave ship from Africa. Records show that she may have obtained much of her grit from certain exploits she saw of her spunky mother, Rit, in protecting Harriett’s younger brother, Moses, preventing him from being sold further into Georgia slavery. Those hardships included being knocked upside the head and beaten by masters to whom she was hired out, for weaving, domestic chores and muskrat trapping.
Records show that when she was 12, a white overseer inflicted a severe head wound for her refusal to assist in tying up and restraining a slave who had attempted escape. She was hit in the head by a two-pound weight the overseer threw at the slave, as he ran away. For two days, she received no medical attention but was sent back to work in the fields with a swollen skull and blood still dripping down her face. Afterwards, she experienced bouts of epileptic-like seizures and unconsciousness for the rest of her life. Along the way, according to archival information, she acquired a loving faith in God and tossed out the white interpretations of scripture she learned which taught slaves to be obedient, favoring Old Testament depictions of deliverance. She was said to have powerful visions or dreams which she interpreted as signs from God.
Footnote to Marriage Dispute
According to historical archives, when she was 25 years of age, she married a free African-American by the name of John Tubman. Five years later, she left him over their dispute with her desires to “go north” to live and avoid the terror associated with the possibility of her being sold again and separated from her husband. He wanted to remain in Maryland and, according to archives, strongly suggested that he would tell her master, Edward Brodas, if she ran off. Since their dreams no longer matched, she left her husband in 1849. With the help of nearby white abolitionists, she eventually found her way to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, obtained a job and began saving money for her treks back to the South, to free others.
In 1850, she launched the first of her many missions (various historians say she made between 12 and 20 treks) to help as many as 400 hundred slaves escape to the North and, eventually, members of her own family, dodging slave catchers, hunting dogs, uncooperative weather and hundreds of miles of harsh travel conditions… on foot. And, the year is significant, since it is the year the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, making it illegal for any citizen to assist escaped slaves. It further complicated the secret efforts of the Abolitionist Movement, forcing the Underground Railroad to transport its “passengers” further north to Canada, rather than just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the symbolic line addressing boundary disputes in the colonies and legal issues concerning slavery, for certain northeastern states and the Dixie South.
Bodacious Dixieland Raid
But, of the many “Conductors” on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman is arguably the most documented and most well-known. Due to her heroic and creative exploits of leading many daunting missions back and forth through the marshes and swamps of the Deep South, to guide hundreds of fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada, she was later dubbed “Black Moses.”
However, of all the exploits attributed to “Black Moses”- and, there are many- the one that still stands out the most for me involves the stealthy and daring raid- the Combahee Ferry Raid– on June 1 and 2, 1863, with a group of 300 black Union soldiers that she led deep into Confederate territory, reportedly to “harass whites” and “rescue freed slaves” and the first woman to ever lead such a raid, at the time. In the process, they wound up destroying “millions of dollars of supplies” and “thousands of dollars of property”- without death or injury to anyone in the strike force she steered, to free between 500 and 800 slaves, depending on which records you relied on, not far from current U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp, Parris Island, and U.S. Rt. 17, in Beaufort, SC. Reportedly, nearly all of the freed slaves had joined the Union Army.
Other archives claim the raid’s strategic objectives as including destruction of area plantations, removal of mines from the river and “encouraging” infantry recruits among male slaves freed in the process. Noteworthy is the fact that Union Army commanders, in the planning stages of the raid, counted heavily on the intelligence gatherings of Harriett Tubman who, returning to the U.S. in 1861 from living in Canada, had enlisted into the Union army as a teacher and nurse to South Sea Island blacks the army had helped escape from slavery. Two years later, she was working as a scout with Colonel James Montgomery, helping with preparations for the Combahee River Raid.
The entire South Sea Island area in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as the Underground Railroad, has long been of interest to our family. When our kids were in their middle and high school years, during 1988, we had designed our family vacation around three weeks of travel, zigzagging several states, hundreds of miles and “400 years” back in time to various Underground Railroad “stops” we had researched earlier. After graduating from high school, our eldest son joined the Marine Corps and attended the Marine Corps Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, not far from the site of the 1863 raid. Both, my wife and I have traced some of the previously missing links to our ancestors, and possibly the Gullah culture and descendants of Angola, to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country marshlands. This is in addition to known Scotch-Irish and Cherokee ancestry. And, in 2011, we attended our first Gullah Folk Festival, in Beaufort, SC. We also plan to return, since there’s more to learn and pass on to others in our family, as yet another “bridge” to our sketchy past.
Given this backdrop, I was very pleased to learn that the “Black Moses,” Harriett Tubman, was finally honored with South Carolina legislation, passed in 2006, to name the U.S. 17 Bridge over the Combahee River as The Harriet Tubman Bridge. According to an article published in the Beaufort Gazette (“Bridge Honors Tubman’s Heroism,” by Brandon Honig, Sept. 2006), citing state Rep. Kenneth F. Hodges, D-Bennetts Point, “(Tubman) served as a spy in this region for nearly three years, and the Combahee River raid is one of the great historic feats of the Civil War… Hopefully (the bridge) will serve as a means of inspiring more research on Harriett Tubman and… promote and increase historic tourism in the area.” Construction on the bridge was completed and an opening ceremony conducted in October 2008.
I was also pleased because Harriett Tubman’s life following the raid was not befitting of a hero, according to various historians. During a train ride back to New York, at the end of the Civil War, she was accosted by a white conductor and cursed for refusing to move into a smoking car. Outraged white passengers then assisted the conductor in physically removing her and, in the process, broke her arm and caused other injuries when they threw her in the smoking car.
Furthermore, after years of difficulty in obtaining a pension for her war services, in 1873, she was lured into a fraudulent financial scheme, tricked into going into the woods with some men, attacked, knocked out by chloroform, robbed, bound and gagged. She was later found by her family, dazed with injuries, and harangued by the public for being naïve and falling for the swindle. However, most scolded the men who conned her and sympathized with her.
Records show that she died of pneumonia at age 93. However, before dying, consistent with the spirit in how she lived, she gave her home “for the elderly” to the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, not far from where she was buried in Auburn, New York’s Fort Hill Cemetery- with military honors.
Her tombstone reads:
To the Memory of Harriett-Tubman-Davis, Heroine of the Underground Railroad, Nurse and Scout in the Civil War, Born about 1820 in Maryland, Died March 10, 1913, at Auburn, N.Y., “Servant of God, Well Done” – Erected by the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, July 5, 1937.
But, thanks to the recent 2016 decision, by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, her legacy will soon be punctuated with her photo on America’s $20 bill. According to archivists, Tubman’s picture on the $20 bill will make her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. For me, this is noticeably significant… belated, perhaps, yet forever significant!
(Backstreet Djeli w.d.s. – Partial Reprint from Backstreet Djeli’s Blog, 2012)