It is not difficult to be inspired by Harriet Tubman. She was a woman who suffered injustice, oppression, brutality and betrayal, yet persevered and trusted God to enable her to keep going. Her tenacity is summed up in her much-quoted reflection: ‘I always tole God, I’m gwine (going to) hole steady on you an’ you got to see me through.’
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in about 1820. She had a wretched childhood, suffering many beatings and then a massive head injury at thirteen when she refused to help a foreman punish a slave. The headaches which were to occur for the rest of her life often came with visions and a deep sense of God’s presence. Although illiterate she had learned bible stories from her mother, and prayer was to be a constant source of hope and help. Years later, she prayed for her own slave master, a cruel and unfeeling man, urging God to change his heart. When no change and Harriet found he was sending her to a chain gang far from her family, she altered her prayer and asked God to remove the man from the earth. A week later the man died, and Harriet was utterly remorseful that she had ever prayed for someone’s destruction.
In fact, most of her life was about deliverance rather than destruction. When she discovered that both her parents had been promised release from their slavery, so technically their children should not have been slaves, she felt the weight of injustice. There was no possibility of legal redress, as such steps were beyond her, but she did feel that God was guiding her to achieve her freedom nevertheless by running away. Her husband, a freed slave, would not support her attempt, and her brothers who left with her became afraid and returned, so she continued alone. She hid by day and travelled by night, finally reaching Pennsylvania, a Free State. The arduous nature of her journey and the danger it put her in seemed to bring her closer to God. She recalls how she prayed to God, lying on the cold ground: ‘Oh dear Lord, I ain’t got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord for I’m in trouble!’ God did come to her help, and brought others to aid her, for she travelled without detection and arrived in the North and to freedom.
Harriet had made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This was a well-organised system of free and slave blacks, white abolitionists and other activists against slavery. The Quakers were very involved as well as other Christian groups. There were various ‘stops’ on the railroad where people took her in. At one stop she was suddenly ordered by the lady of the house to sweep the yard. Later she discovered that the slave hunters had come, but were satisfied that she was one of the family’s slaves. In all, the journey to Pennsylvania was of some ninety miles, and when Harriet arrived she spoke how everything around her seemed tinged with heaven.
Harriet was not content with her own freedom, however, and went back to rescue her family. In all, over the next eleven years she made between thirteen and nineteen trips back to the South and brought out more 100 slaves to freedom through the underground railroad (some even suggest 300) . In fact, Harriet became such a threat to the pockets of plantation owners that an abolitionist claimed that they had offered a reward of $40,000 reward for her capture – although this enormous sum has never been verified. Accurate numbers are less important however than the fact that she guided people to safety and enabled them to leave a life of slavery behind. And when the American Congress, dominated by the Southern States, passed the Fugitive Slave Law requiring the free states to recapture slaves, Harriet still did not give up but began to take slaves farther north into Canada where slavery was prohibited.
The rest of her life saw an extension of her passion for justice. She was active in the Civil War. She guided the Combahee River Raid which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. She even became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Wherever there was a call for liberation, Harriet was active.
Yet she refused to accept any accolades. Always, she insisted that she merely followed the guidance of God and did nothing without his prompting, his authority or his protection. For the God she believed in is the God who loves human beings, and calls us to neighbour love. For all believers he is indeed the God of justice.
This article was first published in Woman Alive July 2011
Elaine is a writer & broadcaster, lecturer and author. She was President of Tearfund from 1996 to 2014, has lectured in many continents, is a member of Newnham College, Cambridge and an Ambassador for Restored. She served on The General Synod of the C of E for 28 years, until 2015.. Her most recent book is “Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women”. elainestorkey.com