People of Faith: Harriet Tubman
- Friday, February 21, 2003
Like her Old Testament counterpart, Harriet “Moses” Tubman led many of her people out of slavery and into the Promised Land, but she was also like him in another respect. Before God used both Moses and Harriet, He first took them away from all that they had once known and loved. That prospect was enough to make Harriet’s two brothers turn and flee in terror, preferring “the devil they knew.” But for Harriet, freedom was worth paying any price, bearing any burden. She would not wait for someone to grant it to her, and she did not intend to be deceived by a master, as her mother had been.
Harriet had heard of two large cities where blacks lived free: Philadelphia and New York. She made up her mind to get to one or the other in spite of desperate handicaps—she was penniless and a fugitive of the law. She had no maps, no compass. Her food supply consisted of the paltry snack she had taken from her cabin. She had never been taught to read or write. There was no one to encourage or support her. Even her husband would sound the alarm the minute he realized that she had run away.
Nevertheless, there was at least some balm in Gilead in the form of a woman who had once offered to help Harriet if she ever decided to break away. She had met the white woman, a Quaker named Miss Parsons, while working in the fields one day.1 The woman had stopped to exchange greetings with Harriet and became curious about the origin of the scar on the slave’s forehead. Miss Parsons was clearly moved by the story. She told Harriet about her farm in nearby Bucktown and that “if you ever need any help, let me know.” It was a cryptic invitation. Harriet wasn’t entirely sure what Miss Parsons could do for her, but the woman was her only human consolation at the time she escaped.
That Harriet trusted Miss Parsons at all is extraordinary in and of itself. Until that time, whites had given her few reasons to believe in their goodwill. She was soon to discover, however, just how many decent white people were out there in the wider world, people who had deep convictions against slavery and who were poised to help her win her precious freedom in any way they could.
Harriet and her brothers had left in the early morning hours, and after the men had turned back, she raced on to Miss Parsons’ farm. She found it just as the woman had described it. Fortunately, Miss Parsons remembered Harriet and was glad that she had come for help. This association was Harriet’s first encounter with the Underground Railroad. After eating a nourishing meal, she listened as the Quaker told her about two other “stops” on the mythical railroad and the people who would help her as she made her way north.
Harriet moved quickly and furtively that night when it was safer to travel, following the bank of the Choptank River. She always kept the North Star to the front and left of her. When she couldn’t find it among the clouds, she would find her direction by feeling for moss that grew on the north side of trees.
In the morning Harriet finally arrived at the first house to which Miss Parsons had directed her. She became frightened, however, when the couple she met there gave her a broom and told her to start sweeping outside. Was it possible that Miss Parsons had tricked her? Was this some kind of trap? That seemed too out of character for the gentle but determined Quaker. She wasn’t the betraying kind. Later that day, the man of the house relieved Harriet’s fears when he loaded his wagon with produce and quietly directed her to scoot down low and hide under it. Then he covered her with blankets and got behind the reins. Although she was nervous as he started down the road, she was so tired that she quickly fell asleep to the lulling sounds of the wheels against the road and the rhythmic clip-clop of the horse’s hooves.
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