Chapter 19: Harriet Tubman
1849 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
John and I lived almost six years, happy. I changed my name when we got married to Harriet like my mama and Fredrick Douglass’ mama. Of course, I took my husband’s last name; I’m a modern woman. They say us negro weddin’s aren’t legal, but love is the bindin’ for folk. Well, we loved each other through and through.
The only argument we ever got in was when I mentioned I wanted to be free. “John,” I’d say, “we can make it to Canada together. We can be free.”
His answer was always the same. “Oh, my dear, delusional wife,” he’d start with a chuckle. “I’m free already. This home and land, it’s mine. Why would I want to run, and ’specially to Canada? It’s mighty cold up north.” I’d usually start to get cross with him then, and he’d say to me, “Can’t you just be happy and content being my wife? Ain’t gonna be long before we become parents, then you’ll be happy we’re here and not there.”
“Oh, there will be no babies as long as I’m still someone’s slave,” I’d answer, diggin’ in my heels for a fight. And I meant it, too. There was no way I’d bring another slave baby into this world. Not a chance.
Now Quakers were almost as good as colored. They call themselves friends and word is, you can trust them every time. Once while I’m workin’ my tail off on the edge of the field, a horse-drawn cart pulls up next to me. Find out she’s a Quaker woman named Ellen Humphrey. She shields her eyes and acts as if she’s lookin’ over the workin’ field. I realize she’s watchin’ where the overseer is, without lookin’ at me she says, “If you ever need some help, you come a callin’ at our place down Live Oaks Holler.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I said, but she don’t look at me.
“Last house on the south side of the road,” she added, then she flipped the reigns of her horse and the cart rolled forward.
That night at supper I mentioned freedom again to John. “Harriet, my love, I just can’t have you leavin’ me. I love you too much.”
“I love you too, husband.” My eyes were downcast, submissive.
“I’d be so scared somethin’ would happen to you, I’d probably report you to Thompson’s overseer.”
I was indignant! “You wouldn’t!”
“I love you, wife. I worry about somethin’ happenin’ to you, I don’t want you to leave me.” I just stared at him, my eyes boring holes in his heart. “What if—”
I put up my hand and stopped him from speakin’. “There ain’t no ‘what ifs’, there’s being free and there’s bein’ a slave, and…” I took a deep breath, “There’s dyin’.” Our eyes met. “John, I love you too, but I’d rather be a free woman on your arm than owned by another man and I’m willin’ to gamble my life on it.”
“Harriet, please,” he reached over and took my hand. “We’re happy, we’re healthy. Boss man lets you hire out, that’s almost like bein’ free. You’re makin’ some of your own money. Please wife, be content with what we have, I’m askin’… no, beggin’.”
I shook my head, tears wellin’ in my eyes, “But it’s—”
He shushed me, squeezed my hand and leaned in to kiss my cheek.
“I love you more than you’ll ever know,” he said. All I could do was nod as the tears rolled down my face.
Mrs. Humphrey rode her buggy by a couple days later.
She slowed and spoke to me. “Heard the slave trader’s coming through next week.” I didn’t say anything, just kept my head down. I lifted my eyes just to check where the overseer was. He had his back to us so the sun didn’t glare in his eyes. “You remember where I live?”
“Good, well just remember, if you ever need any help, you just come a callin’.” With that, she moved on down the road.
My mind started reelin’. The slave trader comin’ through again. Rumor had it Thompson was ready to let the Brodess spread go, piece by piece, to maximize his profits. That thought gave chill to my back bone.
Not that night, but the next, Calvin came by and announced his woman was expectin’.
“I’m gonna be a daddy!” he said with enthusiasm. “Let’s just hope it looks like its mama and not me.” Shante was Calvin’s woman. They were in love, he declared, and plugged down a bottle of moonshine on my kitchen table. “Let’s celebrate,” he chimed and took a long draw from it. “Ppeeeww!” he spittled and coughed as he handed the bottle to John. I watched as my husband tilted it back, a bubble came up from his breath and he slammed the bottle back down on the table, hard.
“Damn!” John cried, eyes waterin’.
“’Nother slave baby,” I said with bitterness on my tongue. I wanted to be happy for them, but another slave baby only made me sad. Since Calvin had been freed, his new house was along the lane where John’s place was. There was a stretch where mostly blacks lived, free folk. I’d seen Calvin often now, more than my other family, really. Now it was off season, I was hirin’ out more than workin’ for Brodess.
“Aw, Auntie, don’t be bitter,” Calvin said and took up the bottle. “I’m gonna buy her freedom, if not before the baby, shortly thereafter.”
I shook my head and clucked my tongue. “Lot could happen between now and then.”
“Don’t jinx us,” he laughed. “It’s a time for celebratin’, c’mon now,” he held the bottle up for me to drink. I took it and held it up to my lips. The smell accosted me and I shook my head and handed it back.
“I’ll keep my celebratin’ until we’re all freed, Nephew.” My negativity felt wrong and I softened, “I’m happy for you, Cal, really I am, nuthin’ sweeter than a newborn.” I placed my hand on his shoulder. He took it and gave it a squeeze, smilin’ up at me. He certainly had grown into a handsome man. His skin was dark, but not quite as dark as mine or Linah’s. It was the dimple on one side of his cheek that deepened with his smile that made him irresistible, plus his dancin’ eyes that weren’t neither brown nor green but somewhere in between.
“Cheers, Nephew.” John smiled and clapped Calvin on the back. “My weddin’ prayer for you is that you’s as happy as me and your auntie here.” With that, he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me onto his lap. I smiled and watched Cal take another long drink.
The men got drunker and drunker, laughin’ and jokin’.
When the bottle was gone, Calvin slurred. “I best be gettin’ on down the way.” He staggered to the door.
“Be sure to bring Shante next time, Nephew,” I added, smilin’, and leaned in to give him a little hug. I noticed there weren’t no moon when I walked Cal out onto the little stoop.
“Love you, Auntie Harriet,” Calvin called as he disappeared into the darkness. By the time I got back in, John had already moved to the bed. He was strugglin’ to get his boots off. I bent over to help.
“Oh wif, great ’ews,” he said incoherently. “A baby.”
I nodded. “Shante’s a good woman, comes from a good family.”
“MMMmmm hhhhmmmmm,” John moaned and laid back on the bed. Within a minute he was snoring, deep into a drunk slumber. I didn’t waste no time. In my money tin, I had about eighty cents saved up. I grabbed the only other dress I owned ’n wrapped it in the quilt I had made for my dowry. I extinguished the lantern and let the dark fall over the house. My eyes adjusted quick, coulda been ‘cause my heart was beatin’ a mile a minute. My palms were sweatin’ and I was scared, but I had to do what I had to do. I looked at my beautiful, free husband and slipped the latch off the door.
“I love you more than you’ll ever know,” I whispered and left, closing the door without making a noise. I moved from shadow to shadow. It wasn’t hard to get to Live Oaks Holler. My ears pricked up like a dog’s, every sense on high alert. I got to the end of the road like Ellen had told me. It took me a minute to find the north star, to orient myself with where I was. Once I did, I knew which way south was and saw the two-level house that Ellen lived in. It seemed to breathe, to beckon me.
There weren’t no indication of anyone bein’ up so I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I moved as quiet as I could down the side of the house to the back. Two dogs started barkin’ and I had a fright so severe I almost yelled out. I pressed myself against the back door and knocked quiet, too quiet. I glanced around, gettin’ more and more nervous, those dogs were makin’ quite a fuss. Just when I was gonna move off the back porch and figure somethin’ else out, the door cracked open.
A big, pink-faced man with a round face stood starin’ at me. He had a white beard on his chin but no moustache. His eyes darted back and forth, then he grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the kitchen. With haste, he locked the door. Ellen appeared at the stairs wrapped in a knit shawl.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”
“Were you ‘spectin’ someone else?” I asked humbly.
She giggled, it sounded nervous. “We never do know.” Her husband had lit a lantern and moved to the icebox. “Well, let’s get you some food and rest and you can set off tomorrow after the sun goes down,” Ellen was explainin’ to me. Her husband retrieved a large glass of milk, two slices of bread, and small slab of ham. He set it at the table and motioned for me to sit.
“Thank you, sir,” I said and sat in front of the plated food.
“Robert,” he answered. “But you can call me Bob.” I nodded. Ellen was talkin’ again.
“So, eat up and I’m going to hide you under the house. Will you be alright down there alone?”
I looked at the food and then back to them and nodded. Then I bowed my head down and gave God thanks for the abundance I had found. When I looked back up, Ellen and Bob were smilin’ at me and waitin’ for me to eat my late supper.
Under the Humphrey house was a big cellar. Bob set the lantern down so I could get a look around. In the small room, he had fashioned bunk beds on three of the four sides and bed rolls were lined on the ends of each. There was a small table and two chairs plus a chamber pot.
“Ain’t never slept in a bed before,” I commented, looking at the way he had them each attached to the walls and ceiling.
“There’s a first time for everythin’,” he smiled. “These aren’t the most comfortable, but they maximize the space down here. We’ve had bigger groups and—”
My face twisted into a question. “Bigger groups?”
His face glowed with pride. “Oh yes, my best estimate, we’ve accommodated 20 runaways over the months.”
“All at once?” My mind reeled.
“Oh no,” he laughed again. “Three here, seven there, once a family of four with a couple littles, we never know, but we always open our home.” We stood in a moment of silence. “Well, I’m going to go get some shut-eye,” he said and moved to the door leaving the lantern with me. “Ellen will bring you food about noon tomorrow.” I nodded. “Don’t leave or you’ll get picked up by the slave patrol, you got that?” Even though it was an order, his voice was calm, kind, and reassuring in every way. “Get some sleep.” With that, he was gone. It didn’t take me long to get comfortable and I laid there and thought of John. Had he woke yet and seen I was gone or had the alcohol kept him snorin’ ’til dawn? I saw his sweet face in my head and I began to doze, then I slept like I ain’t never slept before.
Sure enough, Ellen showed up about noon time. It was so dark in the cellar I wouldn’t have known if it was noon or midnight, but to be honest, I just slept on and off for the whole time. It felt good to be under the ground, safe, hidden. Even though I was a runaway, I felt freer than ever in my life.
She brought more bread and this time a chunk of cheese and two fat carrots that cracked when I bit into them. She also brought me two pieces of paper. One had a drawn map, she showed me where we were and where I needed to go. The map had numbers on it, but I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t tell Ellen, but it seemed she knew.
She pointed to one number. “Two miles, it’s only a half hour walk before you turn north, can you find the north star?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
“Good,” she said. “There’s a symbol on the north fence that looks like this,” she pointed to a little sketch on the paper. “Go to the east side door and knock, someone will answer, ‘who’s there?’ and you’ve got to say, ‘a friend of a friend,’ that’s the code.” Her blue eyes in the lantern light looked translucent like a deep, still pond. She took my hand. “What’s your name? No, never mind, I don’t need to-”
“Harriet,” she smiled with reassurance. “You’re going to be fine, just fine, you hear me?”
My heart swelled in my chest and I felt tears sting my lower lids. “I just say,” my voice shook with emotion, “Lord I say, I’mma gonna hold steady onto you and I know you’ll see me through.”
Ellen was nodding and holding both my hands. “Praise God,” she said. When she came that night to let me know the coast was clear, she brought me a wrapped sack with dried meat and another slice of the heavy bread. God was great and I rejoiced in my good fortune. I handed Ellen my dowry quilt. “No, I can’t take this,” she said and tried to push it back into my arms.
“Please,” I said. “You may have someone here that needs it more than me.”
She shot me a delighted look and a quick wink. “I like your style, Harriet Tubman.”
With that, I was off in the night, creepin’ from shadow to shadow again, movin’ like a cat towards the next stop.
My days and nights seemed to run together ‘cause I slept during the day and traveled at night. It did my heart some good to see the kindness in people from stop to stop. It was amazin’ to me how many folks were there to help along the way, white folk and black folk. Once, I was smuggled in a brick-layers cart, those men covered me with a board and more bricks to keep me hidden. Another time, a big white woman with eyes the color of sapphires was so kind to me I almost cried with gratitude. I’ll never forget her relief when I made it to her check point. When her soft arms went around me, I knew I was safe and I thanked the All Mighty in Heaven. She said she had known I was comin’ and had been prayin’ for me each day. Her prayers were answered just like mine were.
After nights of travelin’ I finally made it to the Mason Dixon line. The sun was comin’ up over the hills; dawn broke over the horizon and gave me hope for a fresh life. A free life. Even though I was exhausted, my feet felt light and there was a renewed sense of energy.
I looked at my hands to see if I were the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields and I felt like I was in Heaven.
I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land and my home, after all, was down in Maryland because my father, my mother, my brothers and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.
As I walked the streets of Philadelphia, my mind became obsessed with my family, my husband. I wanted them to see what I was seein’, whites and blacks all walkin’ down the same streets, livin’ in the same neighborhoods. Colored children playin’ with white children and not makin’ no mention of their differences. I musta stood out like the stranger I was ‘cause I was approached by a negro couple that asked me if I was a friend of a friend. The Quakers’ codin’. I knew they was alright so I stopped and talked to them.
They directed me to a three-story brick house and told me I needed to ask for Thomas Garrett and that he’d know what came next for me. I couldn’t imagine what they were talkin’ about, I didn’t know what was next for me, how could a random stranger know? But I did find Mr. Garrett, and he was as kind a soul there ever was. First, he asked me my name, and I told him, Harriett Tubman. He wrote something in a big ledger and I had to wonder if that’s how my name looked all written out.
Then Thomas asked about my massa and I told him he died and the new massa was plannin’ on sellin’ me and that’s why I stood before him. He asked me if my massa was kind and I almost laughed in his face.
“I’ve heard of kind masters before,” I said. “But I ain’t never met one.”
Mr. Garrett wrote down the information I told him, then he went to an adjacent room and motioned for me to follow. I couldn’t believe what I saw in that room. Clothes and shoes, hats, scarves, coats, and undergarments like I ain’t never seen before. He held up dresses before me to see if they may fit. Once he found somethin’ he thought was suitable, he gave me directions to go down the stairs and find a negro woman named Lucy. It seemed I wasn’t sure what was goin’ on, I could only imagine the look on my face, utter confusion, but I did what I was told.
Lucy was the sweetest thing I ever did meet. She was about my age, but born free. Imagine going your whole life as a free woman? Lucy drew me up my first ever hot bath. I’m not soundin’ uncivil, I’d bathed before, but in a creek or luke warm water in a wood bucket, never in a copper tub with steamin’ water. It was divine! Lucy put lavender in the bath and it smelled so lovely too, I truly thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
I lowered my achin’ bones down in that water and said another prayer of thanks. That young woman came in and started bustlin’ around me like a mother hen, tellin’ me how brave and courageous I was. I told her ’twasn’t me, it was the Lord. I always told Him, I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I ’spect you to lead me and He always did.
“Praise God,” she said.
“Amen,” I answered.
Lucy helped me get washed up proper, even my hair. She said she had a special soap for black folk hair. I didn’t realize there was soap that was just for hair exclusive. When I was done bathin’ I seen the dress that Mr. Garrett had picked out for me layin’ across the back of a chair.
“I ain’t got no money to pay for dem clothes,” I told Lucy.
She smiled and explained they were a gift from the American Colonization Society to help me get on my feet, that they donate to every black that has the moxy to go after their own freedom. I told her I would be forever grateful.
Lucy had the biggest looking glass I’d ever seen, when I stood and looked at my reflection I could see myself from my head down to my feet. It was surreal. I knew it was me, I recognized my face and my figure, I even reached up and touched my clean and combed hair just to watch my arm move in the mirror. A free woman. It was hard to take in, my eyes welled with tears. Lucy looked like she was cryin’ too.