Who should be first in the list of famous slaves? Einstein is reputed to have said this of Mahatma Gandhi: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this walked the earth.”
I suspect that Einstein didn’t know of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), one of the slayers of the dragon of human bondage. I suspect that if he had, he would have said of Tubman what he said of Gandhi. I suspect that if he had, we would be more likely to recognize her name.
I’ve just finished reading “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman,” a biography (2019) of Tubman by Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a historian.
Harriet Tubman was a 5-foot short, black, poor, illiterate, epileptic, divorced, remarried, and widowed, non-pacifist Christian who, in the 91 years of her life, was born into slavery, traded as a slave, hunted as a runaway, and called Conductor, Black Moses, Spy, General, Nurse, and Mother Tubman. She deserves to be famous globally, like Gandhi.
She was called a Conductor because she conducted hundreds of people out of slavery into freedom on the underground railway. She was called a General because she recruited and inspired hundreds of black men to fight for the Union (Northern) Army against the Confederate (Southern) Army in the American civil war (1861-1865) over slavery. She didn’t become as famous as other freed slaves partly because the author she hired to write her biography didn’t do a great job.
Dunbar, in her introduction, writes:
she is … one of the bravest, most fearless, committed, and extraordinary Americans of any century. She repeatedly put her life and liberty at risk to rescue others, she worked to advance the rights of women, and she, at the height of her fame and notoriety, risked it all one last time to become a spy for the Union Army. In that capacity, she walked right into enemy territory rather than away from it, because rescuing one or even seventy slaves was like removing a grain of sand from the shore, one at a time. Harriet joined with the Union Army because she understood that only a war could sweep away the entire beach.
In her short, lively book, Dunbar shows why what she says in the above quote is true. Personally, I’m humbled by three things in Tubman’s life.
First, Tubman’s concern for others. She worked over many years to earn and save money to fund her mission trips. She persuaded, collected and escorted hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. She resettled them in new lives as free persons. She cared for soldiers in the battle fields by cooking for them and nursing them to health. She cared for the hungry, homeless, sick, both young and old. She inspired others to act, not just for themselves, but for the benefit of others.
Second, Tubman’s conviction about God. Fate had handed her a bad hand. She was born into slavery. Her family members were sold and taken away. She was made to do adult work from the age of 5 years. She was worked to exhaustion daily, for years. She was beaten repeatedly. Before she escaped and became a conductor, her skull was cracked by a heavy object thrown at another person; she was given no treatment, given no time to rest and heal; she became an epileptic: one consequence was constant headaches, another was that she would fall into deep sleep unexpectedly and have visions. She treated these as God’s guidance to her. One of the most remarkable things about the lives of slaves is their trust in God. Of the lives I’ve read, Harriet Tubman’s faith is the most exceptional.
Third, Tubman’s financial instability. She never had enough money. She was almost always in debt. She was always helping others. She was cheated many times by people who exploited her generosity. The government denied her a pension for many years. She only got her pension for her services as a nurse during the civil war after years of pressing for it – Congress had to pass a bill to grant her the pension. She was never paid for her work as a spy and for recruiting soldiers. Yet she started, and saw to completion, a project to build a home to care for elderly black persons who were ill and unable to care for themselves.
It’s hard to believe such a woman as Harriet Tubman walked the earth. This exemplary, illiterate, indefatigable Christian is #1 in my list of famous slaves.