Chapter 29: Harriet Tubman
1858 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
That trip with my brothers was possibly the best and worst trip that I did over the next ten years. More and more people reached their hands out to help fleein’ slaves. It was termed the Underground Railroad, but wasn’t ever just one actual route, nor a real railroad, or even a designated path. It was like the hauser when I was a kid, passin’ people, or packages, as they were known, instead of gossip. Big packages or little packages, were what we called ‘em. The folks helpin’ became conductors, it was all just a code we had to use. It was what we had to do to keep it secret.
From one hand to the next, folk were fleein’ in droves. I personally made nineteen trips over the years, takin’ about seventy folks total. My name became a household word, Harriet Tubman to the whites and Moses to the blacks. Wanted signs of me were posted throughout Maryland. The bounty started at fifty dollars but as the years went on, it went up to three-hundred. It was rumored my hide was worth more than the others ’cause of my God-given purpose. Who’s to say? All I know is I wanted all my family with me.
Anthony Geoffries was a white Canadian that helped with the folk that made it to America’s northern neighbor. We had become friends since our mission was the same. Each time I had a successful trip, he took me out to dinner at a real restaurant where I was waited on by negroes AND whites.
He read the newspaper to me often to keep me in the political loop. I told him how my ouma used to read the paper to us when we was young. That thought made me think of Calvin who had brought us those papers each week when he was the house slave.
Couple times Anthony read about the American government writin’ to the Canadian government tellin’ them they wanted their run-away property back. The kicker was the Canadians wrote back that there was nothin’ to be returned. We got a good chuckle out of that. He went on outlinin’ how the Canadians that weren’t used to coloreds and had to adapt.
“Color-phobia is a contagious disease,” he read one evenin’. “It’s more destructive to the mind than to the body. It goes hard with a person who is a little nervous.” Our eyes met then he returned to readin’, “It frightens them from the dining table at public houses, not because a black man’s cooking the dinner or waiting on the tables but because of his sitting down to eat.” With that we both looked around, sure enough, there were folk watchin’ us. A white man and a black woman, sittin’ together; it was a spectacle.
Our black waiter brought our food, he was about Harry’s age and it made me long for home. Anthony kept readin’, “It excites them awfully when colored passengers enter the rail cars or stage coaches but not when they come in the capacity of waiters or servants. What you think of that, Minty?” Anthony had taken to callin’ me by my crib name when he learned what it was, he says it suited me more than Harriet.
“I think it excites blacks to see whites gettin’ on the stagecoach just as much but in a different way,” I said. Anthony laughed.
It was Anthony that told me Calvin’s woman and two children were goin’ up on the auction block. That made my heart squeeze with sickness. ‘Sides my pa, Cal was my only free relative and I thought about his nightmare of losin’ his family. Anthony didn’t know they were my kin until I told him.
He explained he knew some Quakers that lived just a half mile from the courthouse and we brainstormed on how to get Shante and the children before they got sold.
“What if Calvin just goes in and buys them?” I suggested.
“There’s no guarantee we can come up with that kind of money.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “What if he pretends he’s takin’ him to a white massa, what if we can make a note like the other documents you create and what if—” Anthony was followin’ my trend of thought.
“Yes, we can say the woman and children are bein’ looked at by a white master, then they can slip up to the house.” The excitement of this plan sparkled in his blue eyes.
“I’ll distract the padda-rollers and—”
“And I’ll meet you at the train station, get your folks, too, this is the perfect time to bring them, too. I’ll get tickets and new identities for everyone.”
That night, Anthony and I fell into bed together. The passion we felt about what we was doin’ created a spark between us. It felt heavenly to be held, to be loved and told I was beautiful. Anthony’s white skin layin’ naked with mine was a world I wanted to believe in, a world where whites and blacks came together in love, in a passion for life. We all wanted the same thing, to love and be loved.
He held me through the night, the bed was soft and the room dark and quiet. It was tender, beautiful and everything I craved.
When it was mornin’, I didn’t want to go but I left on foot knowin’ Anthony would be at the train station on the designated day. For over a year, I had saved my money and hired an attorney to research my mama’s freedom. Sure enough, he found out Mama’s original owner had indeed freed her when she turned thirty-five, over twenty years earlier. It broke my heart to think of how I was gonna tell her and it excited me to think of her response.
The lawyer told me it would be hard and expensive to have it hold up in court since Edward, Ethel’s grandson, was now in legal possession of my mama and all her offspring. He said if I could get her and Pa to Canada, it would be cheaper and easier than havin’ to find an American lawyer to try the case.
It wasn’t hard to find my pa. He was a creature of habit. He woke, worked and slept the same every day. When I saddled up to him his face broke into a smile that would rival the sun’s shine. He kept silent though, he knew my face still hung at the post office and courthouse as a wanted woman. After I explained to him about what the attorney told me and about our plans to rescue Shante and the children, he nodded and was quick to take up our plans.
The mornin’ of the auction, Calvin had been sent word to go to the Quaker’s house. The good folk there gave him the paperwork that Anthony had forged and filled him in on what to do. They outfitted him with the perfect stable-hand slave garb. Then they showed him how to get in the cellar and hide with his family. There was a big padlock that had been affixed to the door so it looked like it was locked, but it wasn’t.
When the lunch break was in progress, I crouched down in the scrub oaks. I saw Calvin enter lookin’ sharp and every bit the courier he was supposed to be. I hung back for a few then started walkin’ down the street to where a woman was sellin’ live chickens. I hobbled like I was elderly and hunched my back over so I looked the part. I chose two chickens and proceeded to tie them with a slip knot, all the while observin’ where the slave women and children were bein’ kept. My bonnet was pulled low so I could see out, but no one could get a good look at my face. Once I saw Shante and the children bein’ taken out of the penned area by the bailiff, I hobbled back towards the courthouse still holdin’ the chickens tied with the twine.
Calvin appeared carryin’ his oldest child, Shante was weeping and carryin’ the baby. I could see he had the paperwork Anthony made clutched in his other hand. He looked up and down the street and I could see he was expectin’ the worse. They turned sharp and headed to the Quaker’s cellar.
Sho’ enough, about two minutes after the auction resumed, out came two white men on horses. They rode right up to me and shouted, “You seen a family of niggers?” I acted confused and looked around as I shook the cord the chickens were tied to. I had only secured one and the one with the slip knot got freed and started flappin’ and runnin’, makin’ the horses nervous.
“Yas’sir,” I said, then I nodded and pointed away from the Quaker’s place, the horses were side stepping as the chicken I still held was flapping and tryin’ to join its friend. I hurried after my escaped fowl. Those men took an old woman’s word and rode off the wrong way.
I let the chicken go and took just the one back to the Quaker house for our supper. When Calvin saw me, he let out a shout, “Auntie Harriet!” He jumped in my arms as he realized it was me that was the old woman which distracted the padda-rollers. We dined on roasted chicken that night and left before dawn to make our way to the train station.
Pa had followed directions to a tee. Him and ma were there in their Sunday’s finest, standin’ on the platform with their paperwork in their hands, a bag of their belongs at their feet. They were lookin’ as nervous as a two folk could be, Ma was wringing her hands together and Pa’s eyes darted here and there makin’ him look out of place.
Anthony came out of the station just as the sun crested the tree line. He smiled at me. Somethin’ about that grin made my stomach tingle and my cheeks grow warm. He passed out everyone’s tickets and forged documents. Then he told Shante to make her way to the colored women’s bathroom in the basement of the station. There was a church woman there who had clothes for her and the children so they didn’t look like runaways. Anthony had two grown men with him I had never seen. They didn’t look like no runaways either, but I knew they were.
Our train took us to New York, where we were met by Fredrick Douglass himself. It was a train that he used to find his freedom, too. Him and his wife were as cordial as anyone I’d ever met. I was in awe of this great man and when he shook my hand, he said I was his hero. That was the best compliment I ever had.
Like I suspected, my ma cried when I told her she’d been a free woman since she was in her mid-thirties.
“Soph and Mariah,” she cried. “They would have been free too if Edward would’ve honored Ethel’s last will.”
“I know, Mama, I know,” I tried to offer her some comfort.
“After everything my mama did for that boy. She practically raised him, right from the start, nursed him she sho’ did and after all that…” Her tears were ebbed to anger, “A little coward is all he were—a little coward!”
Canada didn’t suit my parents very well, especially Ma, who was plagued with arthritis. We needed a place in a free state, like up-state New York. With Mr. Douglass’ help, we found a house with some land where we could all live. Benji, who’s new identity ironically named him John, just like his son, found a job at a general store.
“God’s will,” he said as he settled into his new life. It was good to have him close again. He began to build his own house on the west side of the land. As promised, I had gone back to Dorchester County and brought Kesha and the babe to New York.
Everyone had gathered in the new house and were expectin’ us. Dawn was creepin’ over the horizon when we made it to the house. Ma and Sarah had made us a grand breakfast with floured biscuits, eggs and bacon. She quoted Revelation from the Bible when she offered our mornin’ prayer, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” she recited, “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
“Amen,” we all said together.
Benji’s face was still wet from his tears of joy, the baby boy perched in his lap.
Calvin and Shante bought their own place that was adjacent on the south. Watchin’ her, I could tell by the swellin’ of her breasts she was with child again. I suspected she was due about the same time I was. That’s right, I found myself with child early in ’59.
Everythin’ was finally goin’ just perfect and I couldn’t bear to leave my family. Knowin’ my baby would be born half white also gave me pause. Anthony Geoffries was the father. I knew I still had a callin’ from God. The idea of havin’ the baby as a wanted woman turned my stomach. My ouma had taught me there were a tea I could blend up and drink to abort the baby. That didn’t feel like the right thing to do either. I just wasn’t sure of anything.
Since my family didn’t always know the business of freein’ black folk, they never did question me or my long absences. I went back to Pennsylvania but told my family I had business in Canada. It felt safer if no one knew where I was. I sought out Lucy who had helped me a decade earlier when I first found my freedom. She was every bit as kind as I remembered and she put me to work in the hotel like I used to while my baby grew inside me. I saved every red penny to pay a mid-wife when my babe came. A girl, not born black or white but somewhere in between, like sweetened tea. Her curls had a gold hue to them and she was the most beautiful newborn I’d ever seen. I named her Magulu after one of the children that was aboard the Amistad, that rogue slave ship that landed in Connecticut years earlier.
“Like an African version of Margaret,” Lucy had commented. “I like it.” Her smile was so warm and kind. She was such a God-send to me. Margaret seemed to suit the child better and that’s what she became.
After four weeks, I felt up for the night trek back to New York. Baby Margaret was already such a good baby. I didn’t feel the need to drug her and as suspected, she slept the whole night and day.
When I got back, I watched Calvin and Shante’s place from the woods. I was right about Shante, and I could see the way her belly extended, it would only be a couple more days before she gave birth. I held Margaret and comforted her, I told her I wasn’t leavin’ her forever.
I told her how much she was loved, so much she’d have family to take care of her for all her days. I watched until I knew Calvin had left with the horse and buggy and the older children. It was second nature for me to move along the tree line and keep to the shadows. Shante was sittin’ on the back porch darnin’ some of Cal’s socks; her face brightened when she saw me.
“Auntie Harriet, well good to see you, forgive me if I don’t get up,” she giggled and patted her pregnant stomach. I nodded and moved to the empty chair beside her. “What you got there?” she asked and peered into the bundle I was carryin’, “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed when she saw my little baby girl.
“Margaret,” I said, a lump formin’ in my throat. “I need you to take her, Shante. I need you to raise her up, say you had twins, say whatever you wish, but I’m askin’—” I couldn’t finish my sentence as I was overcome with emotion.
“Harriet, we can’t,” she began and I looked up to meet her eye.
“I have work to do, Shante. God works through me, you know that, and now Mr. Lincoln is the president, well I’m thinkin’, I’m hopin’, things are going to change for us folk.” Shante was shaking her head but she let me continue. “This country is on the brink of war. Not just our freedom but every black man, woman, and child’s freedom now and generations from now.” I took a deep breath to calm the emotions that were getting the best of me and continued, “My life’s work is for the greater good of all us blacks. It ain’t fair to this perfect babe that I don’t give her all my attention, that I don’t have a proper family for her. Please, Shante. Your children will be born free and that’s all I can hope for my daughter, please.” I was cryin’ now, full gator tears rollin’ down my face. Without askin’, I slipped my daughter into my niece’s arms. The mending fell to the wood planks of the porch.
“Aw, she sure is a pretty little thing,” Shante said and I could see she was warmin’ to the idea. “I thank God for you every day, Auntie. Every day I count my blessings that we’re here, we’re safe and together. Don’t ever think I’m not grateful.” Her eyes were moist as she stared down at Margaret. “Who’s the father?” she asked, more to the baby than to me.
“No one you know,” I said.
“Consensual?” I nodded. “With a white man? Oh Auntie, you surprise me.”
I felt my face flush. “I’m merely made of flesh and blood like any other,” I said, then I looked away, hopin’ Shante wouldn’t see the heartbreak in my face that Anthony left and a deeper hurt that losin’ Margaret was going to leave. I never did tell him about our love child and had no intention on it. “How’d you know?” I asked.
Shante rolled her eyes and giggled, “Auntie, please, you’re as black as coal, this babe ain’t gonna get the color of weak coffee.”
“Will you take her in, Shante?”
“Not sure what Cal’s gonna say,” she started to say.
“Don’t give him a choice, just say it’s a miracle from God.” Our eyes met and I knew then I had made the right choice for me, for Margaret, AND for Shante.