The Moral Universe – The Moses of Her People


I’m often a few days late in remembering to change my calendar. Who needs a calendar these days? The computer, the cell phone – everywhere you look reminds you what day it is. Calendars are really for the pictures these days.

harriet tubmanThe one on my refrigerator at home features famous African-Americans. On July 5, when I took all the magnets off and lifted the page, my heart swelled when I saw the picture of Harriet Tubman. After spending a rainy Fourth of July reading, napping, and buying homemade ice cream at the Farmer’s Market, here was my real Independence Day celebration! Who better to symbolize independence than this small woman, often called “The General” by her friends, and “the Moses of her People,” who found her way to freedom and then returned to the South to help at least 300 other slaves find theirs?


I’ve read about Harriet Tubman in many books new and old, but seeing her picture sent me back to the bookshelf to remind myself of her particulars. Charles L. Blockson’s 1987 book Underground Railroad gathers first-hand accounts of escaped slaves from interviews, biographies, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of the day. Blockson himself is the great-grandson of an escaped slave.

Born Araminta Ross in 1820 or 1821 in Maryland, Harriet was renamed after her mother. Unusually, her family were not separated and lived together on the Brodas plantation in Bucktown. Physically strong despite her size, Harriet said in interviews that she was often hired out to plow and drive oxen, which must certainly have helped both her muscular strength and her determined character.

Harriet was known to have been deeply religious and to have had visions. (I have not yet found out whether these began before or after she was hit in the head by a heavy weight that missed the slave it was thrown at. James McBride uses a similar incident in his beautiful book about Maryland slaves, Song Yet Sung.) She trusted implicitly in God’s guidance, saying she was even given step-by-step divine instructions in perilous situations. She never claimed credit for herself for her heroic deeds; all the credit belonged to God.

When she made her break for freedom in 1849, Harriet had been married for five years to a free black named John Tubman. With the help of the Underground Railroad, she made it to Philadelphia where she met William Still. A black agent on the Railroad, Still wrote the first book about the U.G.R.R., as he called it.

In Philadelphia, Harriet worked as a domestic to make money to go back to Maryland and collect her parents. She eventually did so, bringing them all the way through to Canada. She tried to get her husband to come North, but he had become involved with another woman and she cut him loose.
Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker abolitionist and conductor on the Railroad, wrote to Sarah Bradford, Harriet’s first biographer, that no one Harriet escorted north was ever arrested or returned to slavery to his knowledge. He also mentions that she had an uncanny knack of coming to him for money for supplies at the exact time he had received money to be given to her, with no communication between them. The Anti-Slavery Society of Edinburgh was one of her supporters.

Harriet’s world was greatly enlarged by her activity, and Frederick Douglass and John Brown were among her colleagues and friends. In later years, she became involved with Susan B. Anthony and other of the early suffragettes.

Both Mr. Blockson’s book, and Scott Christiansen’s book, Freeing Charlie, relate an incident in the escape of a slave named Charles Nalle. He had been taken to Troy, New York, one of the hubs of the Railroad, when he was spotted by fugitive slave hunters. No one seems to know how it was that Harriet happened to be in Troy that day or even know about Nalle, but she suddenly appeared and manacled herself to him, literally pulling him out of the hands of the police.

Harriet Tubman made about 19 trips back to Maryland, trips that could have ended in her death. But her belief in her God and her mission delivered her to the ripe old age of 93. When my interest in anti-slavery efforts became renewed and I was contemplating writing this blog, I tried talking about her at my workplace at lunchtime. The only comment I received was something to the effect that she was “one ugly woman.”

What I saw when I turned the calendar page the other day was a beauty that comes from great faith, from fearlessness and from a righteousness that is transcendent. Harriet Tubman is, to me, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.


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