A Band of Angels
Harriet Tubman Home (opened 2017)
180 South St. Auburn, New York, 13021
“There was one of two things I’ve got a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive.” Harriet Tubman
The old Negro spiritual holds the plaintive words, “Swing low, sweet chariot/Coming for to carry me home…” For the enslaved, home referred to heaven, the end of earthly misery. The Harriet Tuman Home is a testament to dreams do not have to wait for the hereafter.
The comic strip Wonder Woman wore a cape, the historic Harriet Tubman wore a shawl, and both accomplished Amazonian feats. Araminta, (Minty,) later Harriet, was born around 1820 to Benjamin and Harriet, (Rit) Ross, one of nine children. Her early years were spent on the Bucktown, Maryland, plantation of Edward Brodess. At age six, her owner hired out Harriet to a Mr. and Mrs. Cook who whipped her for not cleaning to their standards. They next tasked her with checking muskrat traps-valuable for food and fur- that entailed wading through cold water. One afternoon, suffering from measles, she collapsed. After her mother nursed her back to health, her next hire was with Miss Susan. Curious about the taste of a sugar cube, she snuck one from a bowl. Caught in the act, when Susan reached for the whip, Harriet took off and hid in a pigpen where she fought the animals for potato peelings. After five days of near starvation, she returned to face her punishment. At age thirteen, Harriet was at a general store in Bucktown where an overseer threw a two-pound lead weight at a runaway slave that found its target on her forehead. A result of her injury was Harriet experienced lifelong blackouts in which she claimed to converse with God. The Bucktown Village store still operates today; the owners display metal slave tags and shackles. Love mitigated the horror and Harriet married John Tubman, a free black man.
The event that altered the trajectory of Harriet’s life was Brodess’ plan to sell her on the auction block. Conversing with the Lord, she asked Him to take the life of her master; Brodess died a week later. Knowing his widow would pursue the sale, Harriet plotted to escape. Because John refused to take the risk, Harriet left with three of her brothers. Fearful of capture, they turned back and Harriet undertook a solo journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania. She marked her transformation from slavery to emancipation by taking the name Harriet after her mother, her surname, Tubman, from her husband. Upon stepping onto the soil not polluted by human servitude, Harriet wept, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now that I was free. 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.”
Although no longer bound by shackles, Harriet suffered from loneliness as revealed by her quote from Exodus, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” After a year working as a maid and saving as much as possible, the secretary of the Philadelphia vigilance committee that helped runaway slaves informed her of the imminent sale of her sister Mary and her children. Like the biblical Moses, Harriet set her sights on their deliverance.
The journey to Maryland was relatively safe insofar as no one would fathom a former slave returning South; however, the way back was fraught with danger. With a hefty reward for her capture, her Javerts-white and black bounty-hunters- were relentless pursuers. Relying on her conversations with God, survival skills learnt from her father, often disguised as a man or elderly woman, Harriet undertook nineteen trips to the South where she liberated seventy slaves. The activist declared, “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.” What damped her rescue mission was the discovery her husband had a new wife. As Harriet’s fame grew, her admirers referred to her as Moses-for bringing slaves to the Promised Land and for her lyrics of “Go Down Moses:” code for she had arrived. John Brown, who sought her advice for his raid on Harpers Ferry, dubbed her General Tubman. The five-foot-tall hellion let nothing stand in her way. While leading a group of slaves, she knocked out an infected tooth with her pistol; as Harriet never smiles in her few remaining photographs, the self-surgery cannot be verified.
Philadelphia, the hub of the escaped slaves, stopped being a sanctuary after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act: runaways living in free states could be returned to their former masters. Once again, Harriet was on the move; this time the Promised Land was Canada that had outlawed slavery in 1834. In her adopted country, she and her family had their base in St. Catherines, Ontario.
The nickname, the General, became even more apropos when Harriet offered her services to the Union army. She explained, “The good Lord has come down to deliver my people, and I must go and help Him.” She became the first woman to lead a military expedition during the Civil War. Union soldiers tore up railroad tracks, burned bridges, and set fire to Confederate plantations. During a raid on South Carolina, Harriet helped rescue 700 slaves. Harriet later recalled of those who fled towards freedom, “They reminded me of the children of Israel coming out of Egypt.” During her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria distributed presents to those who had demonstrated valor. She gifted the American woman-warrior with a white, silk and lace shawl that is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Harriet stated the queen had written that “anytime I was in England I could stop by the castle and share a spot of tea.” In her life post freedom, Harriet wore white as the color denoted strength in West Africa. One of her photographs shows her with a black shawl with fringes.
Unwilling to remain in Canada, her variation of the land of milk and honey, because injustice still ruled the American roost, Harriet returned to the United States. In Philadelphia, Harriet’s Quaker friend, Lucretia Coffin introduced her sister Martha Coffin Wright, who lived in Auburn, New York. Martha’s husband’s law partner was Senator William Seward, later the secretary of state under President Lincoln whose wife, Frances, had inherited several properties from her father, one situated a mile away from the Seward mansion. In 1859, for $1,200, with a down payment of $25.00, Frances sold a seven-acre house to Harriet despite the Fugitive Slave law that made the sale of a property to a runaway slave illegal and carried a penalty of a six-month jail term and a fine of $1, 500, ($30,000 in contemporary currency). Due to the Seward’s political and social clout, they evaded repercussions.
For the woman who had slept on a blanket in her slave quarters, in a pigpen, and pine needles during her escapes, Harriet home-now the Harriet Tubman House-must have been the culmination of an unimaginable dream. determined to have her own home-now the Harriet Tubman House. Her door was always open to the needy, “I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all here.” With several dependents, and as the army refused to pay her a pension, Harriet raised pigs for food, and harvested crops. She also rented out rooms and married her boarder, Nelson Davis, in 1869, with whom she adopted daughter Gertie. In 1880, another tenant accidentally set their home on fire. The black community helped with the rebuilding; they substituted the wood with brick and added an extra story and an attic. In 1896, Harriet purchased an adjoining twenty-five-acre lot as a home for the elderly and ill. In 1911, Harriet, taking along her sewing machine, took up residence in the white wooden facility for the old. Visitors to the thirty-acre site can tour Harriet’s 1880 brick house and the Home for the Aged, (currently a museum).
At age ninety-three, Harriet passed away from pneumonia; her last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” As she lay dying, she could have sung the words of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see/Coming for to carry me home/A band of angels coming after me/Coming for to carry me home….”
A View from Her Window:
Gazing from the windows of her red brick house, Harriet saw her loved ones on the lawn, her crops, the wooden structure that housed the old and indigent. She might well have recalled the biblical words, “And God looked upon all that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Nearby Attraction: FORT HILL CEMETERY
Located in the colonial town of Auburn-sometimes referred to as “Prison City” as it is the birthplace of the electric chair-is the 1852 cemetery. In the mid sixteenth century, the site was a fortified village of the Cayuga tribe. There is a fifty-six-foot obelisk dedicated to Logan, a Cayuga leader who asked, “Who is there to mourn for Logan?” after Europeans murdered his family. Harriet Tubman’s grave is distinguished by a three-foot-tall granite marker erected in 1837. On the front is carved the name Harriet Tubman Davis 1820-1913. The back holds the words, “Servant of God, Well Done.”