There are only 17 pictures in this post. Shocking I know. But there are a lot of words. That’s the only way I could do justice to this amazing woman. Hope you’ll agree it is worth it.
Today is Wednesday. David has to get a blood draw. The closest place is Auburn New York about 17 miles away. So we make a day of it by visiting the Harriet Tubman House and Wegman’s which seems to be the best grocery in these parts. This works out very well since the temperature is predicted to be a ridiculous NINETY ONE degrees and thus we aren’t much up for hiking or biking or kayaking. I might as well be in Florida or Big Bend rather than upstate New York. We definitely picked the wrong year for the Finger Lakes BUT luckily there are lots of air conditioned museums nearby.
We reach Auburn easily by taking Route 89 from the campground 5 miles north and taking US 20 East right into Auburn. We’re driving down State Street on our way to Labcorp when up ahead we see what looks like a castle with two great towers. And then we get close enough to see the fencing with the razor wire curled all over the top. It’s the Auburn Prison, now known as the Auburn Correctional Facility. Makes me wonder what changed inside? Did it really go from punishment to correction? Notice the statue on top of the main building. The picture below is from the web. We were driving right by the front and too close to get the entire front of the building.
The signs on the towers read:
The Crossing Place Site of a Cayuga Village
occupied by Indians before
and after the settlement of Hardenbergh Corners
Erection Commenced 1816
First Prisoners 1817
Assisted in Construction
in the world 1890”
Now about that statue. His name is Copper John. He was an American Revolutionary war soldier. . It has entered the local lexicon as a reference to the prison and aspects of it, for example, getting sent to Auburn Prison is "going to work for Copper John." Since I can’t tell this story better than the source from which I took it, the infallible ‘Wiki’, I will quote:
"John" was originally a wooden statue that was erected atop the administration office of the prison in 1821. In 1848, the statue had weathered so much that it was taken down and a new statue was made out of copper by the prisoners in the prison foundry. In 2004, the New York state government became aware that the statue was fashioned to be anatomically correct and ordered the statue to be "incorrected". Some correctional officers made an impromptu protest by passing out T-shirts showing the iconic statue and reading "Save Copper John's Johnson"; but the statue was nonetheless removed, his penis was filed off, and remounted in August.”
Can’t believe it took them over 100 years to decide to be upset about this. Whose job was this to make sure the government became “aware” and did something about it???
OK back to the important part of the day.
After the blood draw, we drive just a short distance out to the edge of town to the Harriet Tubman property. The site is located on 26 acres of land and until recently owned and operated by the AME Zion Church of which Tubman was a member.
When we arrive, we are the only two people here. Tours begin on the hour and we are 20 minutes early so we have time to begin looking at the exhibits. I am interested in the maps showing that Tubman had been a slave on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This is an area I am familiar with.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross the 5th of 9 children of Benjamin Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green. All were slaves on the plantation of Anthony Thompson in an area of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland called Peter’s Neck. When Araminta “Minty” was around two, a series of family situations in the Thompson family, forced Rit and her children to move away from Ross to a farm in Bucktown about 10 miles away.
At the early age of 5, Minty was hired out to temporary masters for her wages. Due to the economics of the time period many slaves on the Eastern Shore were sold south to cotton plantations including 3 of Minty’s older sisters. When she was about 10 or 11, she was hired out as a field hand to a neighboring farmer. One evening she went with the plantation cook to the local dry goods store to purchase items for the kitchen. When they arrived, Tubman was in the doorway when an overseer who in pursuit of a defiant slave boy picked up a weight from the store counter and threw it at him. It missed and struck Araminta with such force that it fractured her skull and drove fragments of her shawl into her head. She was sent back to her Master who tried to sell her but no one would buy a sick and wounded slave. The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures, and periods of semi-consciousness, probably Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which plagued her for the rest of her life.
There is a great deal more detail to the life of Araminta Ross before she became Harriet Tubman and it is all fascinating but too much for this post. The important highlights are as follows:
When she was about 22 she married a free Negro named John Tubman and became Araminta Tubman. His freedom did not enable her freedom nor that of any children they might have. Any and all of them could be sold or given away by Edward Brodess the step son of Thompson and Harriet’s owner since she had moved from the plantation to town.
When Brodess died in 1849, knowing she was about to be sold, Harriet fled to freedom.
John did not accompany her and when she returned for him on her first rescue mission, he was married to a free Negro, a marriage recognized by the courts as theirs was not. At that point, Araminta changed her first name in honor of her mother “Ritt” and became Harriet Tubman.
She returned to the Eastern Shore 19 times to rescue scores of family and friends. At first they went to Philadelphia in the closest free state by various routes shown in the map above on the right. They thought they were safe in the north.
This is the home from which she rescued her 3 younger brothers and others over the Christmas Holiday in 1854.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act permitted bounty hunters to bring run away slaves back from free states and made it punishable by a fine of $1000 and six months in jail to help a fugitive slave. I checked with a Federal Reserve link where I found that $1 in 1850 would be worth $28.60 in 2014. That means $1000 was worth $28600. That’s a big risk to take to help the slaves in their quest for freedom but a lot of folks risked it in the Underground Railroad that Tubman used.
As a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, Tubman moved her family and future “passengers” to St. Catherine’s Ontario Canada which you can see is a great deal further from Maryland than Philadelphia. They lived there while she made more trips back to bring others to freedom. Eventually with help she as able to relocate her parents to this property in Auburn.
This is only part of what I learned before the tour even started.
Just before the presentation started a van of people arrived, paid their admission of $5 or $3 for seniors and children. We filled in the chairs but people kept arriving. The timeline on the left in this picture was fantastic. On the top were the major events in American History and below were the events in Tubman’s long life.
I felt sorry for the guide as his presentation was interrupted frequently by people and famlies. He took it all in stride, welcomed each person and continued on covering the time line of Tubman’s life. I was surprised at so many people but perhaps the fact that Harriet Tubman will soon be on the $20 bill and that this property was recently purchased from the church and designated a National Historic Park site has increased its popularity even on a Wednesday mid week in July.
The guide did a 20 minutes presentation of the main points of Harriet’s life and he was absolutely excellent. His enthusiasm was contagious and no one took their eyes off of him for a minute. About half of his presentation was on her childhood, her escape and her underground railroad work. The other half was on the rest of her life during which she continuously and selflessly helped others.
During the Civil War, she worked in South Carolina as a nurse and cook and to scout and spy behind enemy lines for the Union army. She provided badly needed nursing care to black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who crowded Union camps. “In early June 1863, she became the first woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Colonel James Montgomery and his Second South Carolina Black regiment up the Combahee River, routing out Confederate outposts, destroying stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons, and liberating over seven hundred slaves.”
After the war with the freedom of the slaves, she dedicated her life to helping former slaves, especially children and the elderly. She also became active in the women's rights movement and the AME Zion Church. She returned to Auburn where she began another career as an activist and suffragist. She appeared as a speaker at local and national suffrage conventions until the early 1900’s. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis a Civil War Veteran with whom she lived until his death.
She took friends and relatives into her home and cared for the aged. She struggled financially all of her life never receiving pay for her work in the Civil War although she ultimnately received a widow’s pension from her husband’s service. No wonder she was a suffregette.
Somehow, she was able to build this house which became a home for the elderly possibly the first one in the country. In 1903 when she could no longer pay the mortgage and taxes, she transferred it to the African Methodist Episcopol Zion church of which she was a member. It was there in the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly that she died in 1913 at the age 91.
After his talk, our guide took us outside to see the two buildings. We were able to tour the restored Home for the Elderly but were not permitted to take pictures inside.
I’m sorry we were not able to tour The Tubman home which is not renovated or open yet. I’m sure the cost of proper renovation must have been prohibitive for the church and hopefully this will be well done and soon by the park service. We did take a look at the house which was rebuilt with brick by Nelson Davis a brick mason after Tubman’s original house was destroyed in a fire.
I was able to peek in the house and see that restoration work has begun.
After the tour outside, we went back inside to see the back half of the museum. I thought I knew about Harriet Tubman known as the Moses of her people but a visit to the Tubman House showed me how very little I knew about this amazing woman and the degree of her altruism.
Currently the Visitor Center for the Tubman House is very non commercial and authenic. The church has done an admirable job with the one room filled with excellent exhibits on the life of Harriet Tubman both before and after her amazing trips on the Underground Railroad. The timeline is excellent as are the museum displays. I suspect everything will be dressed up by the park service but it is quite wonderful now.
Our guide was enthusiastic in his admiration of and knowledge about Tubman. I sincerely hope he will be part of the new park staff. It will be a great loss if he is not. In what can only be serendipity, earlier in the summer, I purchased a biography of Tubman having no idea we would be visiting her home. I was gratified to hear this knowledgable man say that Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson was the one he would recommend. It’s the one I bought.
Harriet Tubman was a hero, a great woman in so many respects. She deservers our admiration and honor. I am very happy to see her selected for the $20 bill. There are few pictures of her so I suspect this the one that will be on the currency.
As we were leaving, another guide arrived to help with the presentations and tours. She had on the same T shirt with a quote by Tubman. This was her response when asked how in the world she could lead this people so far in the dark and the danger.
The Tubman House is well worth a visit if you are anywhere near by. I hope it will be only be improved by the National Park Service although it is an amazing and sweet place just as it is.
In another piece of irony, as we left town we drove by the Auburn
Prison Correctional Facility. Outside were the women waiting for visitation. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, and county jails in 2013. No doubt the number is up by now. The United States locks up more people, per capita, than any other nation. 60% of those are people of color. What would Harriet Tubman, in her selfless concern for others, be doing today?