Harriet Tubman, Moses of her people

Araminta “Minty” Ross was born a slave in Dorchester Country Maryland. The exact date is unknown, as it was for most slaves, but midwife records indicate late February or early March, 1822. Her life was hard, and full of physical and verbal abuse. In 1834, she was hit in the head by a lead weight intended to hit another slave. It almost killed her, but she survived with a dent in the forehead and with fits of narcolepsy and unusual visions. She interpreted those visions as God speaking to her. In her world, black women could preach, for the white slave owners thought women less a threat than men whom they silenced with threats and violence. So she was raised in an environment of evangelical Protestantism, primarily from women, and from African ideology. In 1833, she married a freeman, John Tubman and took the name of Harriet. When her master died, she heard the new owner might sell her, so she ran away in 1849. Shortly after that, the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect making it all the more difficult for slaves to flee to the North. This illiterate escaped slave was fired up to rescue friends and family to join her in Philadelphia and to escort them to Canada to avoid capture. Indeed she became an important conductor on the Underground Railroad for at least 19 trips. No one can give a good reason she was so successful. Her physical appearance was small and unbecoming by standards of this world, but she had a magnetic and engaging personality that attracted many supporters, thus financing her many dangerous forays.

Negro spirituals arose on the Southern plantations spontaneously. There were thousands of spirituals, most were only regional, or sung only on one plantation. They often reflected the elements of African music, such as call and response, shouts, and a strong beat. Often, they would have coded meanings regarding freedom or escape that slave owners couldn’t understand. But sometimes, they knew very well what the meanings were. Harriet Tubman was much a part of this milieu. When she went to find people to conduct on the railroad, she would announce her presence belting out lines from spirituals. Certain lines or phrases had particular meaning. “Ole Chariot” meant people had to get on board immediately. “Adam’s fall” meant wait, danger ahead. She was so successful in her leadership, she never lost a single one of over 300 “passengers”. Slaves claimed she had the charm. One of her most frequent spirituals was “Go Down, Moses”. “Israel” represented the slave, “Egypt” and “Pharaoh” were the South and slave owners. Its code became so well known that slave owners forbade its singing. Her fame grew and soon, she became known as Moses. Indeed, some researchers believe she composed the spiritual, an unusual attribution, because spirituals were almost always of unknown origin. The first publication of the song was in 1853, about three years after she began her work. So the idea of her authorship would not be out of the realm of reason. Certainly she was closely associated with the song. After she died, a bronze tablet was placed at the Cayuga County, New York courthouse saying:
In Memory of Harriet Tubman
Born a slave in Maryland in about 1821
Died in Auburn New York, March 10, 1913
Call the “Moses” of her people during the Civil War
With rare courage she led over
Three hundred Negroes up from slavery to freedom
And rendered invaluable service as nurse and spy