This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.
And to search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or the Apple Podcast. Harriet Tubman is one of the giants of American history, a fearless visionary who led scores of her fellow slaves to freedom. Here to tell the story is Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.
Let's take a listen. I have my MBA. I was working for an investment bank in the late 1980s and I decided that I, I just wasn't happy doing that and my passion was really history. So I went to Simmons University here in Boston and my daughter was seven years old at the time and in second grade and she came home with a little biography of Harriet Tubman. They, you know, they start in second grade with all those, you know, American hero biographies. And while I knew who Harriet Tubman was and I knew the contours of her life, that she was an enslaved person and escaped and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, reading the little book with my daughter just sparked something in me and I wanted to know more. And my daughter was so thrilled about the story of Harriet Tubman. So there was just something, there was something about Harriet, I'll just say it, something about her. So here I am in this graduate program and I thought, well, I'm going to read an adult biography of Harriet Tubman. Well, in the 1990s, the only adult biographies were a couple that were written in the 19th century and one written in 1943. And my professors at Simmons were stunned.
They were like, this can't be possible. She's so famous. How is it that there's no modern adult biography? And that set me on my path to discovering Harriet Tubman's life. And fortunately I live in New England and all the abolitionists that Tubman ended up connecting with once she escaped slavery. They lived here, they wrote letters all the time, they kept diaries and journals and they published interviews with Harriet Tubman when they got to know her. So there was a treasure trove of information here that I could use to research her life.
And I went on to the University of New Hampshire to work on my doctoral dissertation on Tubman. And it was there that I really became even more intrigued by the complexity of her life and how this five foot tall, formerly enslaved woman was able to accomplish so much and she was not literate in the traditional sense. She couldn't read or write and yet she did amazing things. And I discovered so much about her that had never been uncovered before. And part of that was my journey to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she was born and raised as an enslaved child and young adult.
We discovered that she was born in late February, early March 1822. There was a record of a midwife payment on March 15th to help Tubman's mother Rit give birth. Her parents Ben and Rit Ross were enslaved by different enslavers but they were able to live together on one plantation. They had nine children.
Tubman was the fifth of nine. She had four brothers and four sisters and they called her Minty when she was born. Her mother's enslaver Edward Brodess came of age after Tubman was born and he had been raised in a household with a stepfather who was very wealthy. He was one of the most wealthy slaveholders in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore at the time. So Edward moved from a grand house and a thousand acre plantation to this little tiny farm in Bucktown. But what he was rich in was enslaved people. So little Minty's there with her mother and siblings and it was a difficult transition to be taken away from their father Ben and brought to this area in Bucktown. And Edward was not a very smart guy and he was spoiled and he didn't really know how to run a farm.
So he started leasing out his enslaved people to area farmers and you know he would get paid for it and he started leasing little Minty when she was six years old to neighbors. And Tubman later is quoted as saying that Edward Brodess wasn't physically cruel to them, emotionally cruel certainly, but it was these temporary masters that they were hired out to that were incredibly cruel and she bore the scars of whippings that she received at the age of six until the day she died at the age of ninety one on her back and her neck. So it was a horrific childhood taken away from her mother and her siblings. She talked about crying at night, missing them so much. I mean it's just a horrible experience for a child and for a mother who had to watch her children taken away from her and she couldn't take care of them.
She couldn't protect them. So when Tubman was taken away from her mother when she was a small child it was so painful and she would tell audiences about you know missing her mother so much and she just wanted to curl up into her mother's bed but her mother didn't have a bed. She said that her mother slept on straw and she also talked about the horror of three of her sisters being sold away and that she would have nightmares about the horsemen coming and taking them away and her parents screaming and yelling.
Just horrible, horrible scenes you can imagine of losing your sisters and she never knew what happened to them again and two of them left behind little children too. Tubman's childhood was pretty tough and she survived and that's because her parents struggled to make sure that she was protected and that she was educated and she did that. They did that by relying on a community of free and enslaved black people in the area that could watch out for her when her parents couldn't be there. They taught her how to survive in those fields and in the woods and to navigate the water and the marshes and how to learn how to watch people without being noticed sort of to read the moods of white enslavers to protect herself. And you're listening to Kate Clifford Larson tell the story of Harriet Tubman. There is and was something about Harriet indeed. When we come back, more of the story of Harriet Tubman here on Our American Stories.
You love what you hear. Go to our American stories dot com and click the donate button. Give a little give a lot. Go to our American stories dot com and give. And we continue with our American stories and with Kate Clifford Larson, author of bound for the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.
Go to Amazon or your local bookstore or wherever you get your books. Let's return to Kate. When she was about 13 years old, she was leased again to another farmer in the Bucktown area. And she tells the story several times in different interviews and in front of audiences that would come in the north to listen to her after she escaped slavery. She says she was a young teenager and she describes her hair as a like a large afro, very bushy. And it was also greasy because she would wipe her hands in her hair after she ate. It's the late fall and she was ordered to break flax in the barnyard area.
And so she's beating the flax and little bits of the flax are flying up in the air along with the dust and the dirt from the barnyard. And it settled in her hair. At that moment, the plantation cook came to her and asked her to go to the Bucktown store with her to get things for the kitchen. And Minty, who was 13 years old, did not want to go because her hair was messy and she was embarrassed, which is so interesting when you think about it, because every 13 year old girl could understand that and identify that this is this is the human being Harriet Tubman.
She was a teenager once, too, and worried about her hair. So the cook was insistent. So Minty grabbed a shawl from a peg in the kitchen and wrapped her hair in her head with this shawl. And they went to the store. And when they approached, there was an altercation happening at the store. A young enslaved man had fled his work assignment in the field and the overseer or the plantation manager had chased him to the store. And the young man had run into the back of the store. There was a back door and a front door. And as Minty entered the store, he came running out of the store.
So Minty stepped aside to let him flee. And as she stepped back into the doorway, the overseer had grabbed a two pound weight from one of the scales on the store counter and he heaved it through it, intending to hit the young man. But because Minty had stepped back in the door, it slammed right into her head. She described how she collapsed unconscious on the floor and that weight had cracked her skull.
She credited her hair and that scarf is saving her life that day. They carried her back to the plantation and they laid her out on the seat of a loom, which is like a long piano bench. And she laid there for a day and a half in and out of consciousness.
The plantation owner came into the kitchen and ordered her back into the fields. So she went back out profoundly injured. But she describes in these speeches about the blood and the sweat streaming down her face until she collapsed unconscious again. So she was returned to her enslaver, Edward Brodess, and her mother, who spent several months nursing her back to health. And she emerged with epileptic seizures as a result of that head injury. And the seizures also brought on strong visionary activity and hallucinations.
She would have seizures and have these dreams of flying above the earth, hearing angels sing and God speaking to her. She was hired out to more people, including a family that lived near where her father was still living and working. And that was fortuitous for her because she got to be with him again. This family, the Stewart family that she was leased to, they were one of the wealthiest in the county and she worked in the house and then in their fields and she became so strong, she started working on their docks as a stevedore, loading and unloading their boats. And she was the marvel of people.
They just couldn't believe this tiny five foot tall person could pick up these barrels and do the work of a man. She also learned amazing things while on those docks. She met and talked with black mariners called black jacks and they were a vital part of the black world in the Chesapeake, in the Atlantic, in states up and down the Eastern seaboard because they could carry messages. They knew where the safe places were, where there was danger.
They help people escape on their boats. So she learned that information from them. At the same time, she was also learning how to navigate by understanding the constellations and being able to read the night sky.
So she's developing these literacies that aren't the written word, but they're literacies to read the fields and the forest, the water, the night sky, the clouds, the sun, all of that became her classroom and her lessons. She eventually was able to hire herself by paying Brodess $60 a year. And then she charged for her labor and earned enough money to buy two head of oxen, which increased her opportunities. She was an entrepreneur and she met a free black man by the name of John Tubman, who was freeborn of free parents.
Half the black population on the Eastern shore was free. And so they married in 1844 and she changed her name from Minty to Harriet. So she became Harriet Tubman.
And at one point in the late 1840s, Edward Brodess decided to sell her because he was tired of her being sick all the time. And so Tubman later told an interviewer that she prayed to God to convert Edward Brodess to a Christian. Now Edward Brodess was, he belonged to the Episcopal church or the Baptist church down the road, but in her mind, real Christians did not enslave her. So she prayed to God to convert him so that he wouldn't sell her, that he would set her free, but he didn't. And then she prayed, if you can't convert him, kill him, Lord, kill him. And then he died. And she thought, oh no, that was wrong of me.
I never should have done that. She felt tremendous guilt because then it set in motion that many of her siblings were going to be sold to pay the debts of the estate. So Tubman knew she was going to be sold. And for most upper South enslaved people, that was a death sentence to be sold to the deep South.
The average life expectancy for an enslaved person from the Chesapeake sold to Mississippi or Louisiana or Alabama was about seven years. So she and her two brothers, Ben and Henry, decided to flee instead, but they got confused about which way to go. They were afraid.
So they came back after two or three weeks after hiding out. But Tubman just knew that she had to have liberty or death. That was it, liberty or death. So she struck out on her own. And she contacted a local Quaker woman who had indicated to her at some earlier time that she would help Tubman if she wanted to escape. So Tubman went to her.
The woman said, please just sweep the front yard so it looks like I've hired you and wait till my husband comes home and he will take you to the next stop. And he came home and he put her in a secret compartment in his wagon and he took her to the next house where like-minded people lived and they helped Tubman find her way all the way to Philadelphia. And when she got there, she says in an interview that she felt like she was in heaven and that the sun shone brightly like gold. And it was just an amazing feeling. But then all of a sudden it wasn't so amazing because everybody she loved was still in Maryland and still enslaved. So she decided right then and there she was going to go back and rescue them. And I know that practically every enslaved person who fled had those same feelings, but practically all of them did not go back because it was so dangerous.
But she did. And what a remarkable piece of storytelling by Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. And my goodness, that prayer, what a paralyzing thing to have happen and the consequences. And what a story about what Quakers did all over this country, white Quakers, by the way, doing this for enslaved black people and risking their lives doing it. A remarkable story. The story of Harriet Tubman continues here on Our American Stories.
And we continue with Our American Stories. Harriet Tubman escaped into the free state of Pennsylvania in 1849, but her victory was swallowed up by her realization that everyone she loved was still in Maryland and still enslaved. Let's return to Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. So she decided right then and there she was going to go back and rescue them. And I know that practically every enslaved person who fled had those same feelings, but practically all of them did not go back because it was so dangerous.
But she did. And over 10 years, she returned 13 times and rescued about 60 or 70 of her family and friends and gave instructions to about 70 more who found their way to freedom on their own following her Underground Railroad. This is what that famous network was called of people and places, roads and pathways, the Underground Railroad to freedom. So she escaped in the late fall of 1849. She settles in Philadelphia and she starts planning and scheming how she's going to rescue her family. And the first person she rescues is her niece, Keziah Jolly Boley and Keziah's two little children, James, Alfred and little baby Araminta. And Keziah was scheduled to be sold on the auction block in front of the Cambridge Dorchester County courthouse. And Tubman heard through the grapevine that this was going to happen because they would post notices in newspapers for a month ahead of time that there was going to be a sale and who would be sold and things like that.
So she learned through the grapevine. And Keziah was married to a free black man named John who was a ship carpenter. So he too was connected to the black maritime world. So the auction starts and John bid on his wife and children. He didn't have any money, but nobody knew that. He just bid on his children.
He was a free man. He could bid on whoever he wanted. So he bid and the auctioneer closed the auction. And instead of asking for payment, the auctioneer went to lunch. And so Keziah and the two children and John fled to a house nearby.
We don't know which house nearby. And later that evening he put them in a boat and sailed them the 90 miles to Baltimore where Tubman met them on the waterfront. And from there she got them to Philadelphia and then to Canada. And I often thought, gee, you know, was the auctioneer in on it? He didn't ask for payment. Like he would have asked everybody else for payment right away.
So what was that all about? The Quaker certainly could provide a lot of money and running a network did cost a lot of money. And for Tubman, her rescue missions would cost anywhere from $30 to $100. So she had to earn that money by working herself, fundraising with Quakers, with other abolitionists. And she was pretty good at it, raising the money. Sometimes she didn't have enough money. She tells a terrible story about her sister Rachel. She kept returning to the Eastern Shore to rescue her sister Rachel and Rachel had two little children. And every time Tubman tried to rescue her, Rachel wouldn't leave because Eliza Brodess had separated her from her children and she would not leave her children behind. And the last rescue mission that Tubman attempted was in 1860.
She arrived in Dorchester County and discovered her sister had died. And she needed $30 to bribe someone so she could get the two little children and she didn't have the $30. So the children stayed enslaved. So money mattered to pay bribes, to buy tickets, food, you know, transportation. It was necessary.
It wasn't just free. Thomas Garrett was one of those. He was a famous Underground Railroad agent in Wilmington, Delaware, Quaker man. He was an Underground Railroad agent for 40 years.
He's credited with helping 2,500, 3,000 people. And so she became very close to Thomas Garrett and she would arrive in his home or his office and she would say, I had a dream that you had $25 for me. And sure enough, he'd have the $25 for her. Thomas Garrett admired Tubman's faith. It spoke to him because he was a deeply faithful Quaker and he wrote in a letter that he had never met anyone of any color that had more confidence in the voice of God than Harriet Tubman. And then other Underground Railroad agents in New York City, they wrote about how she would come to their office and ask for money and they'd say, well, we don't have any money today.
So she would sit there and wait until people came in and they would give her money. The abolitionists in Boston, like William Lloyd Garrison, you know, one of the greatest abolitionists of all time who published a newspaper for 30, 40 years called The Liberator. He was a radical man and he loved Harriet Tubman and so did his wife and their children and grandchildren loved Tubman. And even though he was in some ways not a religious man, but he had this profound faith. He knew the Bible. He had memorized the Bible. So he understood the words of the Bible.
And he recognized that Tubman lived the Bible. She lived a true life directed by God and she had a moral center that he didn't find in many people. Her faith was, it was an integral part of her life.
It was just so much of her being. And after her head injury and she recovered, her spirituality just blossomed. And that faith of hers fortified her in profound ways to survive. And she had this confidence that God was protecting her and guiding her.
He may not have worked as quickly as she hoped, but she always had confidence that he would stand by her and help her. And she talks about it in many of her lectures and interviews. When she fled the first time, you know, or she escaped successfully, she met white women in Philadelphia. And that was one of the visions that she had seen ahead of time that when she crossed the line into Pennsylvania, there were white women waiting to embrace her. She talks about some of her rescue missions.
There was one where she was leading several men. They were escaping and she suddenly had this feeling that God was protecting her and told her to go a different direction. They had to cross a stream. And of course they could not swim.
Most people in the 19th century could not swim. And the men were afraid to follow her. And she said she prayed to God to protect her. And she walked across the stream, water up to her neck, but she did not drown.
And then the men followed her. So she was always looking to her faith and her confidence that God was going to protect her. And I don't think any of us can argue with that, whether you believe or not, because she was protected. You know, she never lost a passenger as she frequently said, and she survived to be 91 years old through extraordinary circumstances that most of us never would have survived. Tubman tells this story about being on a train and overhearing two men discussing a reward poster and wondering if she was the woman in the poster that was an enslaved person that had run away. And she had a newspaper in her hand and they decided it couldn't be her that was described in the poster because obviously Tubman could read because she had a newspaper in her hand and she said something to the effect that she didn't know if it was upside down or not.
She just was praying that it was the right side up and they wouldn't take a close look. And you're listening to Kate Clifford Larson tell the story of Harriet Tubman in this particular part of the story, the story of her faith. And by the way, Thomas Garrett is worthy of many books.
I've read a couple, but now I want to reread them because my goodness, a single man, a Quaker working in the Underground Railroad, responsible for 2,500 slaves being liberated. And what a testament to faith and the power of faith. And what Garrett said was he never knew anyone with more confidence in the voice of God than Harriet Tubman.
Garrett knew the Bible. Harriet lived it. When we come back, more of this remarkable story with Kate Clifford Larson telling the story of Harriet Tubman here on Our American Story.
When we continue with Our American Stories and the story of Harriet Tubman, let's return to Kate Clifford Larson with more of this remarkable story. Tubman carried a pistol and actually one of her family descendants still owns the pistol. And she used it mostly as protection from slave catchers who roamed all over the place in the South because, you know, there were young men in particular, the rewards were high, you know, $400 they could buy a farm and support their family. So young men would do that before they become farmers or do something else.
So they were everywhere. And so she carried a revolver for that purpose. And she did say in an interview that she also had it just in case one of the freedom seekers that she was helping escape decided to turn back because it was scary.
And some were worried that if they got caught there, they would be in more trouble. So she apparently did pointed at one man in particular who was tired and afraid and he wanted to go back and she pointed the pistol at his head and said, Die here or come along. I don't know if she would actually have done it.
I don't know. But she probably would have now that I really think about it because she wasn't going to risk everything and everybody for one person. And people were betrayed all the time on the Underground Railroad by loved ones, by supposed helpers. She had to be very careful who she trusted, who she allowed to join her groups going north because she couldn't afford to be betrayed. So she had a lot of support in the north. And it is interesting for those of you who have seen the Forrest Gump story, the movie where he meets all the famous people of the time period.
This is Tubman. She meets the wealthiest, the most important, the most politically savvy people in the country. She meets them and they are overwhelmed by her. And she did meet John Brown, the famous John Brown who led the raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859.
She had settled most of her freedom seekers that she rescued in Canada where they were safer. And she had a little house there she was renting in the late 1850s. And they met at her house. He had been told he had to meet her, that she could help him with his plans for his raid. So he goes to her little house in St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada. And she meets him and he comes in and he calls her General Tubman, which is such a term of respect for a white man to call a little petite black woman a general.
It's just stunning. And she loved him. She thought he was the most amazing white man ever because he was willing to die for her. And she worked to help recruit people that would join him on his raid. She was supposed to join him supposedly, but she did not. Some people think that she was sick. I kind of think that she was savvy enough to know that maybe this isn't going to work.
I need to protect myself. But she said that his dying was sort of the best thing that happened because it moved us closer to ending slavery. The Civil War started not too long after that. And she thought he was a martyr for the cause. And she was devoted to his memory for the rest of her life. The Civil War, she decided that she wanted to continue her battle against slavery on the battlefield. And Governor Andrew of Massachusetts had met her, another powerful politician who just was stunned by her brilliance. And he made arrangements to send her to South Carolina to be a spy.
And she did. She went down there and she had a group of eight male scouts that worked with her. And in the past few years, some documents have been discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society in John Andrew's papers, where he directs her down to the South and getting arrangements for her to take a train and someone's going to accompany her. And also a letter written to Andrew by one of his aides who was observing what was going on in South Carolina in Hilton Head. And he was visiting with General David Hunter.
And as he's approaching the tent, what does he see? But David Hunter, General Hunter, standing at attention with a pitcher of water in his hands. And there is Harriet Tubman sitting down and he's serving her water.
Just I mean, think of the time period, a general serving. And as the letter writer said, it was as if he was her servant. She helped lead a raid during the Civil War, Colonel James Montgomery and 150 of his men up the Combe River, where they raided plantations and liberated 750 some odd people. And that was written up in newspapers around the country. And the lead of the newspaper, the article titles were the Black She-Moses. And she was credited with doing the raid. It's still incredible that time period they were given credit to a black woman. So after the Civil War, she moved home to Auburn, New York, where she had purchased a beautiful seven acre farm from William Henry Seward's wife.
Seward was Lincoln's secretary of state. And her house was filled with family members and other people who had no place to stay. And they had moved from Canada to live in this home in Auburn. And the first couple of years, it was really difficult. They had little money. There were a lot of people in the house. And so they starved a lot and Tubman talks about bartering with people so she could get food and they broke down the fences on the farm so they would have wood to heat their home during the winter.
Auburn, New York is really cold and snowy in the wintertime. So they struggled. Local people did help Tubman and her family a lot and they had jobs that they periodically they had different jobs that they could earn money. But it was a difficult time for her. And then it was a sort of a thing after the Civil War, some formerly enslaved people and abolitionists were writing memoirs and someone thought of the idea of having Tubman write hers or have someone write it for her. So they brought on a woman by the name of Sarah Bradford who lived nearby in Geneva, New York. She was a sometimes author, Victorian author. And so she was tasked with writing this book. That book sold and that money was used to help support Tubman and to pay off her mortgage that she had to the Seward family for her home. And then the biography was reprinted in 1886 to raise money for Tubman again. And that was retitled Harriet the Moses of Her People. And then it was reissued in 1896.
And then in 1901, it was reissued again, but it had an appendix that has even more stories in it. So those out there who are interested in some of that original primary sources about Tubman should look at the 1901 version because it has some great stories in it as well. So when Sarah Bradford was working on the biography for Tubman in 1868, she got in touch with people that had known Tubman before the Civil War. And one of them was the famous Frederick Douglass, who actually was born and raised on the Eastern shore of Maryland, not too far from where Tubman was born and raised. And he became this great orator and abolitionist.
So Sarah Bradford asked him to write a letter so she could insert it in this little biography of Tubman. And so this is part of what he wrote. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You on the other hand have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day, you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude. While the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scared and footsore bondmen and women who you have led out of the house of bondage and whose heartfelt God bless you has been your only reward.
The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. It's just remarkable that she moved people. There was something about Harriet that just moved people.
And since then, people have never forgotten her. And when she died in 1913 at the age of 91 in Auburn, the people in the house that were with her when she passed were singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot and she did tell them that she was preparing a place for them, that she would be there waiting for them. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Kate Clifford Larson and her book Bound for the Promised Land Harriet Tubman Portrait of an American Hero and go to all the places you go to get your books. The local bookstore is always best Amazon.
Again, wherever you get your books. Bound for the Promised Land Harriet Tubman Portrait of an American Hero. And it's so appropriate that Swing Low Sweet Chariot would be that last song associated with her to end her life and begin her new one in heaven. And what words Frederick Douglass wrote, my goodness, I was tearing up just listening to it. So powerful and so true, that the famous get the credit that she was doing things. Well, she was just doing things for the Lord. The story of Harriet Tubman here on Our American Stories.
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