I was driving across New York State last weekend and decided to take a detour to visit the Harriet Ross Tubman homestead in Auburn. I’m going to embarrass myself right off the bat by admitting that I used GPS to find the small, wooden-frame building located at 180 South Street.
In case you’ve never heard of her, Tubman is a hero of the Underground Railroad. This incredibly courageous, resourceful and determined woman guided more than 300 escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. Tubman might have laughed at my reliance on GPS since she navigated thousands of kilometres under the cover of night, usually guided by the North Star. When the night skies were cloudy, Tubman literally felt her way north. She knew that moss grows thicker on the north side of trees.
One of nine children, Tubman was born Araminta (also called “Minty”) Ross, about 1820, to enslaved parents in Maryland. She changed her first name to Harriet when she married John Tubman in 1844.
Harriet Tubman decided to escape in 1849, the year her enslaver died. She eventually crossed the Niagara River and made St. Catharines, Ontario, her new home. Over the next several years, and with a $40,000 reward on her head, Tubman returned to the United States dozens of times to help guide slaves to freedom in Canada, thus earning the accolade “Moses of her People.”
This was a woman you wouldn’t want to mess with. She even threatened to shoot any fugitives who considered giving up the flight and returning to slavery. Said Tubman of one man: “If he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all.”
Tubman eventually returned to live in the United States in the late 1850s. She purchased her Auburn N.Y. home with the assistance of William Henry Seward an influential friend and anti-slavery politician who served as President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and was a Governor and U.S. Senator of New York. Tubman spent the American Civil War years with the Union Army as a nurse and cook, and acted as a spy and scout behind Confederate lines.
It was Tubman’s dream to create a home in Auburn for marginalized African Americans. In 1896, she enlarged her property by purchasing an adjacent 25-acre parcel of land. Her dream came true in 1908 when, with the help of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was established.
Tubman spent her remaining years there and died, at age 93, on March 10, 1913. The 30-acre site on Auburn’s leafy South Street, is now a national historic landmark.
All that… and without the aid of GPS.
I’ll leave the last word to Tubman, who, along with more than 100 former slaves, was interviewed during the mid-1850s by American abolitionist Benjamin Drew. In his book, The Refugee: The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves, Drew quotes Tubman:
If a person would send another into bondage he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell, if he could.
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