Monday, February 01, 2010

"You'll Be Free Or Die"

Harriet Tubman kicked ass. I couldn't very well say that in an opinion piece for Small Town Newspaper, though, so I said this instead in honor of Freedom Day:

Today is National Freedom Day, a day President Truman officially set aside to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 signing of the proposal for the 13th amendment. The amendment declaring slavery to be illegal wasn’t ratified until December of that same year, but February 1st has remained a day to honor the importance of freedom. It’s a universal ambition.

With the historic significance of this day in mind, the U.S Postal Service issued a stamp on February 1, 1978 to honor Harriet Tubman. She was a woman who suffered under a constitution that once excluded her, who knew what it meant to live without the freedom the 13th amendment would offer.

Tubman was born a slave in 1822, or it might have been 1820. The birthday of someone considered the property of another wasn’t always significant enough to document. She and her family were kept as slaves on a plantation in Maryland, and she was raised for labor, working as a house servant at the age of five. She once said, “I grew up like a neglected weed—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”

She didn’t know freedom personally, but an innate desire for liberty drove her to claim it just the same. Tubman said, “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” One night in 1849, she escaped from her plantation home to chase that right to liberty, and she followed the North Star to safety in Pennsylvania. She was helped by sympathetic strangers along the Underground Railroad, and once settled in Philadelphia, she found work as a maid.

Tubman learned about the Underground Railroad through her own experience, but she worked with abolitionist groups to learn even more. With their help, she became a capable “conductor” and began making dangerous return trips south to free other slaves.

It is estimated Tubman personally guided at least 300 escaped slaves to Canada and other safe havens, earning her the nickname of Moses. “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger,” she boasted. Always armed with a gun, she swore to shoot not just slave hunters but any frightened escaping slaves as well. “You’ll be free or die,” she’d say to them because once a slave made the decision to escape, he could not be trusted to keep the secrets of the Underground Railroad if he should return to his master.

Her reputation as a fearless conductor spread beyond anxious whispering among slaves. She was wanted dead or alive, and authorities offered a bounty of $40,000 for her capture, a significant amount but only a fraction of the financial losses her actions caused to slave owners—in 1860, a single field slave sold for about $1,500.

During the Civil War, Tubman aided the Union Army as a nurse, a cook, a scout and a spy. She guided the 2nd South Carolina Black Regiment on a raid, which freed more than 700 slaves and earned her the title General Tubman. After the war, she moved to New York and built a home for the indigent, was an outspoken suffragist and was in high demand as a public speaker.

Tubman socialized with the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. Queen Victoria awarded her a silver medal, and after her death in 1913, she was buried with military honors.

In Tubman’s words, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Out of the oppressive and seemingly hopeless nature of her beginnings, this once “neglected weed” became a fierce example of personal strength and patience, and her story continues to serve as the embodiment of our desire for freedom.

Wars are fought because of it. Laws are enacted to protect it, lives are lost in searching for it, and occasionally days are set aside to remember its significance and to honor those who changed the world in its name.

The stamp issued on February 1, 1978.


savannah said...

Well done, Robyn! It has become so easy to forget the sacrifice and the will of others to secure freedom, not only for themselves, but for all who came after. Preservation of our American liberties is a promise we all must keep. We must all remain vigilant and keep our eyes on the prize! xoxoxo

(I've always thought that we should speak of American History month and not just say Black History. It's all one story.)

dive said...

Yay, Harriet!
She was awesome! As are you for writing these fabulous pieces.

Savannah is right, of course, which reminds me that my favourite American historian died this week (overshadowed by JDS). The very wonderful Howard Zinn, whose brilliant 'A People's History Of The United States' should be on everyone's shelves (and well-thumbed). It is the history of ALL Americans: Women, Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, all of the Huddled Masses; everyone the usual history books leave out.

Shazza said...

Wonderful Robyn - thank you for posting.

MmeBenaut said...

Wow Robyn, what a woman Harriet was and this piece is fantastic; easy to read but historically interesting - actually fascinating. Bravo!!