A trib­ute to a hero

New Mary­land cen­ter will honor Har­riet Tub­man and her work

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

She pre­ferred mov­ing in the dark­ness of long win­ter nights. She didn’t wait for late pas­sen­gers: The “train” for Zion al­ways left on time. And she car­ried a pis­tol, in case of trou­ble or flag­ging hearts.

Her branch of the line be­gan here, on Mary­land’s East­ern Shore, near places like To­bacco Stick, Ken­tuck Swamp, and Skele­ton Creek, off the Chop­tank River, to the north.

She was small and the color of a chest­nut, as her owner de­scribed her when she first ran away. But she was hard­ened by whip­pings and work on the tim­ber gangs, and she knew the wilder­ness as well as a hunter.

On March 11, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and the Mary­land State Park Ser­vice plan to un­veil a new vis­i­tor cen­ter here ded­i­cated to the life and mis­sion of abo­li­tion­ist and leg­endary Un­der­ground Rail­road con­duc­tor Har­riet Tub­man.

The $22 mil­lion cen­ter, in the works since 2008, is ad­ja­cent to the Black­wa­ter Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, in the hal­lowed area where Tub­man was born, en­slaved and from which she es­caped.

The open­ing fes­tiv­i­ties next week­end will fea­ture reen­ac­tors, lec­tures and writ­ing work­shops. The cen­ter has ex­hibits, a mu­seum store, a re­search li­brary, and an out­door walk­ing path and pav­il­ion.

It’s the same area where Tub­man re­peat­edly re­turned at great risk to help rel­a­tives and friends out of bondage along the se­cret anti-slav­ery net­work to free­dom that was the Un­der­ground Rail­road.

Be­tween about 1850 and 1860, us­ing stealth and dis­guise, she made 13 trips, spir­it­ing 70 peo­ple out of slav­ery, his­to­ri­ans be­lieve.

Tub­man’s life spanned most of the 19th and part of the 20th cen­tury, took her across the East­ern United States and Canada, and saw her fight for civil rights, women’s rights and the cause of the Union in the Civil War.

But it was here in the mosquitoin­fested swamps and woods, and the lo­cal plan­ta­tions and river ports, that the slave girl “Minty” Ross be­came the lib­er­a­tor, Har­riet Tub­man.

Here, Tub­man was beaten as a child by a mis­tress who slept with a whip un­der her pil­low. Here, she checked muskrat traps, broke flax and hauled logs with a team of oxen she was per­mit­ted to pur­chase.

And here, schol­ars say, amid a fra­cas one night, she was struck on the head with an iron weight and suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing brain in­jury that would al­ter her life.

Tub­man un­der­stood the haunt­ing land­scape where she lived and was said to pos­sess a mys­ti­cal “charm” that pro­tected her, ac­cord­ing to biog­ra­pher Kate

Clif­ford Lar­son.

“She was a ge­nius,” Lar­son said in a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view. “Even though she couldn’t read or write, she was born with a gift.”

“When she worked in the woods with her fa­ther, he taught her how to sur­vive,” Lar­son said. “How to feed her­self, how to pro­tect her­self, how to nav­i­gate through those woods that are re­ally dark at night.”

And she dare not carry a lan­tern.

“This is the area that shaped Har­riet Tub­man’s ideals,” Na­tional Park Ser­vice historian Beth Par­nicza said. “It’s where she and her fam­ily grew up, where she lived for 27 years of her life.”

“This land­scape is crit­i­cal to her story,” she said.

The cen­ter’s open­ing fol­lows the Trea­sury Depart­ment’s an­nounce­ment last year that an im­age of Tub­man would ap­pear on the front of the new $20 bill.

And on March 30, a newly dis­cov­ered pho­to­graph of a woman ex­perts say is Tub­man will be up for sale at Swann Auc­tion Gal­leries in New York as part of a larger al­bum of 44 pic­tures of 19th-cen­tury fig­ures. The strik­ing im­age shows her in a fash­ion­able dress, and she ap­pears much younger than in other known pho­tos of her.

“I al­most fell off my chair,” Wy­att Hous­ton Day, a spe­cial­ist in African Amer­i­cana at Swann, said when he saw it. “I’m fa­mil­iar with the [Tub­man] im­ages that we know of.”

He said he knew “in a flash” that the woman in the pic­ture was Tub­man, aged be­tween 42 and 45 years old. “You see her vi­brant, strong and nicely dressed,” he said. In the later, more fa­mil­iar im­ages, she ap­pears “dowdy . . . an older woman . . . con­ser­va­tively dressed.”

The new photo, “as far as we know, [is] unique,” he said.

Tub­man was born a slave in the win­ter of 1822 out­side the ham­let of To­bacco Stick, mod­ern-day Madi­son, on Madi­son Bay in Dorch­ester County, Md., ac­cord­ing to Lar­son’s bi­og­ra­phy, “Bound for the Promised Land.”

One of nine chil­dren of an en­slaved mother and free black fa­ther, she slept in a cra­dle made of hol­lowed-out sweet­gum log and was hired out to work by the time she was 6. Her name then was Aram­inta “Minty” Ross.

At first, she did do­mes­tic chores and was given lessons in weav­ing, but as she grew, she was tasked with cut­ting wood, plow­ing fields and drag­ging loaded canal boats like a draft an­i­mal. She was only 5 feet tall, but her work made her as strong as a man.

Work­ing as a hired slave, she was al­lowed by her mas­ter to keep a por­tion of what she earned, and with her sav­ings she bought a team of oxen to en­hance her value.

In her early 20s, she mar­ried a lo­cal free black man named John Tub­man, changed her first name to Har­riet and be­came Har­riet Tub­man.

At some point when she was an ado­les­cent, she had suf­fered the griev­ous head in­jury, Lar­son wrote.

One night near a cross­roads gen­eral store, Tub­man en­coun­tered an over­seer pur­su­ing one of his slaves. The over­seer or­dered her to help tie the slave down. She re­fused, and the slave fled.

The over­seer picked up a weight from the store counter and heaved it at the es­cap­ing slave. But it missed and struck Tub­man, crack­ing her skull and knock­ing her out.

Lar­son said she be­lieves that the in­jury prob­a­bly re­sulted in a con­di­tion called tem­po­ral lobe epilepsy, which could ac­count, in part, for the abrupt sleep­ing spells that af­flicted her for the rest of her life.

Tub­man also ex­pe­ri­enced vi­sions, au­dio hal­lu­ci­na­tions and “out-of-body” dreams, which may have been the re­sult of the in­jury and be­came part of her al­ready in­tense Chris­tian zeal, Lar­son wrote.

In 1849, her owner, Ed­ward Brodess, died, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of the sale of his slaves to pay his debts. When his wi­dow, El­iza, be­gan try­ing to sell them off, and Tub­man was ru­mored to be headed for sale, she de­cided to es­cape.

She and two broth­ers fled on Sept. 17, 1849.

But af­ter El­iza Brodess of­fered a sub­stan­tial re­ward for their cap­ture, the broth­ers lost their nerve and re­turned, forc­ing Tub­man to do the same, Lar­son wrote.

A short time later that fall, though, Tub­man took flight again, this time with­out her broth­ers — and this time for good.

Nav­i­gat­ing by the stars and prob­a­bly aided by fel­low slaves, free blacks and sym­pa­thetic whites, she grad­u­ally made her way to Penn­syl­va­nia, where slav­ery had been abol­ished, and to free­dom.

“When . . . I had crossed that line,” she re­called, “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.”

Once free, and badly miss­ing her fam­ily, she be­gan her work on the Un­der­ground Rail­road. She re­turned to Mary­land for her hus­band but found that he had taken up with an­other woman.

Still, she came back again and again.

Some­times, she was a shad­owy fig­ure at an iso­lated ren­dezvous. Other times, she op­er­ated in dis­guise un­der the noses of own­ers and slave catch­ers.

One time, she hid pas­sen­gers in a corn­crib, and an­other time in the se­cret bot­tom of a brick wagon.

She once used a coded let­ter, writ­ten for her by a friend, alert­ing rel­a­tives that “when the good old ship of Zion comes along, be ready to step aboard.”

Tub­man was never caught, and au­thor­i­ties prob­a­bly never sus­pected she was the one be­hind the dis­ap­pear­ance of so many slaves, Lar­son said.

“They would have imag­ined that it was a white male abo­li­tion­ist,” she said. “They just could not get their heads around think­ing that it was a lit­tle black woman.”

Har­riet Tub­man died on March 10, 1913, and was buried in Auburn, N.Y., where she had lived.

Years be­fore, on the Un­der­ground Rail­road, Tub­man some­times had to leave her pas­sen­gers and for­age for food. When she re­turned af­ter dark, she would an­nounce her pres­ence by singing a hymn:

. . . Dark and thorny is the path­way

Where the pil­grim makes his ways But be­yond this vale of sor­row, Lie the fields of end­less days.


At top, the Buck­town Vil­lage Store, still in oc­ca­sional ser­vice in Church Creek, is where Har­riet Tub­man was in­jured by an ob­ject hurled by an over­seer try­ing to stop a flee­ing slave.


Above, Tub­man in a carte-de-vis­ite, or vis­it­ing card. The im­age was taken be­tween 1865 and 1868 in New York and is slated to be put up for auc­tion.

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