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Once upon a time, there was a girl who fought for freedom. Her name was Harriet. In this episode, you will learn about the incredible story of Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest heroes in American history. Harriet risked her life to free hundreds of enslaved people and she remains one of the most powerful symbols of the human need for freedom and equality.
The narrator of this episode is the great African-American activist Tarana Burke, who is also one of the founders of the #Metoo movement.
Get to know our special guest, Christine Platt! She’s a historian, advocate, and storyteller who has written a couple of books that introduce readers to Harriet Tubman. She shares how Harriet’s story resonates with her, untold tales and how she feels Harriet is the ultimate rebel girl.
Once upon a time there was a girl who fought for freedom. Her name was Harriet.
Harriet was born in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sometime around 1822. She had a mother, a father, and several brothers and sisters. Harriet loved to sing, and she loved to listen to the Bible stories her mother told her as Harriet cuddled by her side at night. Her favorite was the story of Moses, who led his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
For Harriet, like her parents, was also born a slave. She lived in a time when white people had decided it was legal for black people to be bought, sold, and treated like property. Because she was a slave, Harriet was not allowed to go to school, or learn to read or write. She could be beaten, whipped, or killed for even the slightest refusal to do what she was told. Worst of all, Harriet and other members of her family could be sold away at any time, never to see one another again.
Before she had the words to say it, Harriet knew slavery was wrong. Even as a small girl, she understood in her heart that all people—black and white, women and men—were born to live in freedom. And she would be the one to lead them there.
I’m TARANA BURKE. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Harriet Tubman.
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From the time she was just five years old, Harriet was forced to work. The white men and women she worked for beat her for the smallest mistakes: if she didn’t dust properly, for example, or if the baby she was caring for cried.
Harriet rebelled in every way she could.
She wore extra clothing to cushion her back against the whip, then wailed when her mistress whipped her as if the blows had full effect. One time, she bit her master on the knee when he tried to beat her—and he never did it again.
When Harriet was still a child, the man who kept her family enslaved decided to sell Harriet’s two sisters, Linah and Soph.
The day the buyers came to collect them, Harriet was too heartbroken to look. She sat in a corner of the cabin, with her hands covering her eyes. She didn’t see the men dragging away her sisters, but – for the rest of her life – she remembered the sound of the horses approaching the cabin, the clink of the chains that bound her sisters… and their desperate screams.
One day, Harriet was ordered to go to the local store to buy some things for her master. While she was at the counter, a runaway slave burst in. His overseer ran in behind him.
“You,” the overseer shouted at Harriet. “Grab that man and help me tie him down.” “No,” Harriet told him. “I will not.”
Furious, the overseer picked up an iron weight and hurled it at the escaping slave. He hit Harriet instead.
The weight cracked Harriet’s skull. Harriet was forced to go back to work in the fields, despite the fact that she was still bleeding. She nearly died. The injury gave her seizures and horrible, blinding headaches that lasted the rest of her life.
But it also gave her visions. Harriet began to have dreams where she flew, as free and light as a bird, swooping across the fields and over the mountains. In her dreams she came to a river, where women dressed in white guided her lovingly across.
To Harriet these dreams were not mere flights of imagination. They were her future.
DREAMS OF ESCAPE
Harriet got married to a free slave named John Tubman and one day, she told her father a secret: she too wanted to be free and she had decided to run away.
Her father was torn. Runaway slaves were terribly punished if captured. He could not bring himself to tell Harriet to do something that could get her hurt or killed. But he also knew that he should not hold back his daughter’s courageous spirit.
So without really telling Harriet what he was doing, he showed her how to run. He taught her how a tree could guide her way, by growing thicker moss on the north side of its trunk. He showed her which plants could feed or heal her. Her taught her how the North Star could serve as a compass that no one could ever take from her.
Not long after, the man who kept Harriet and her family enslaved died. When a slave owner died, the things and people he owned were often sold at market. The family could be split up again.
Harriet knew the time had come. Desperately as she wanted to, she could not tell anyone where she was going, or even say goodbye to her family. They might accidentally give her secret away. So instead, she stood in the field, and said farewell in song.
“I’ll meet you in the morning,” she sang, holding back the tears. “I’m bound for the promised land.” And then she slipped away.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Harriet traveled on something called the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t a real railroad—there were no trains or tracks. Instead, it was a network of homes and churches where people escaping slavery could find food, shelter, protection, and directions to the next house, or station, on their journey to freedom.
Harriet walked through the nights and rested during the days. She used all the skills her father taught her: wading through streams to hide her footprints, listening for the howl of the slave hunters’ bloodhounds, crawling like a snake through the grass. After almost two weeks, Harriet crossed the border into Pennsylvania, where slavery was illegal.
At last, she was free.
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” she later said. “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.”
A TASTE OF FREEDOM
Harriet got a job in a hotel. For the first time in her life she was able to keep the money she earned from her hard work. Her savings went to only one thing: her family’s freedom. She thought of her parents, brothers, and sisters back in Maryland. She thought of her friends. They all deserved the freedom that she now had, the freedom the white people took for granted.
“I was a stranger in a strange land,” she said later. “[M]y father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.”
She would go back to the Underground Railroad—this time as a conductor.
Her first rescue came just a year after her escape. Harriet traveled back to Maryland to lead her niece, her brother-in-law, and their children to freedom in Canada. The next year, she freed her brothers and two other men.
Later that year, she went back to Maryland to get her husband—and found he’d married another woman while she was gone. Harriet was heartbroken. But she pushed her pain aside and guided another group of slaves back to Philadelphia.
Harriet’s rescues were brilliantly planned. Printing shops were closed on Sundays, so Harriet started the journeys on Saturday nights. That way, her party could travel a whole day before the first “Wanted” posters went up.
She zigged and zagged through forests and marshes, evading slavecatchers and their hounds. Sometimes she disguised herself as a man to avoid detection. Sometimes she dressed as an old woman and wandered the roads singing to herself as if she were a batty old lady. In reality, she was singing instructions in secret code to escaping slaves hiding nearby.
“Oh, go down Moses, way down into Egypt’s land,” she’d sing when danger was nearby. And when it passed, she sang again: “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits, death no more shall make you fear.”
Harriet’s rescues soon became even riskier. In 1850 the United States passed a new law called the Fugitive Slave Act. The law made it a crime to help a slave to freedom, even in states where slavery was illegal. All law enforcement officers in the United States were required to apprehend
any escaped slaves and take them back to their former owner. In other words, throughout the whole country there was no safe place for Harriet. If she was caught, she would be arrested— and forced back into slavery.
Harriet did not give up. Instead, she extended her network to Canada, a free country where US laws did not reach. Though the journey now was twice as long, and many times more dangerous, Harriet returned a fourth time to Maryland to guide her brother, her sister-in-law, and several others to freedom. She went again to rescue her parents.
Altogether, Harriet led at least 70 people out of slavery herself, and dozens more escaped using the careful instructions she gave them. People called her “Moses.”
Harriet said later: “I was the conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say: I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
THE CIVIL WAR
America, meanwhile, was going off the rails.
Seven states in the South announced they were leaving the United States and forming their own country, called the Confederate States of America. The Civil War had begun.
Harriet had a feeling that if the Union Army won the war, Lincoln would end slavery for good. For this, her ultimate goal, she was willing to risk her freedom—and her life.
Harriet volunteered as a scout for the Union army. Using her masterful knowledge of secret roads, she traveled deep into Confederate territory for information that helped the Union army plan their attacks. And at the height of the war, she was given the most dangerous assignment of her life.
The Union Army asked Harriet to lead a liberation raid on the South. They told her she would be in command of 150 soldiers. She was the first woman to lead a major military operation in the history of the United States.
Her heart pounding in her chest, Harriet stood on board the ship sailing up the Combahee River. Trained from years of midnight escapes, her eyes made out the shapes ahead in the darkness. She thought of her father, and how far she had come since they’d stood under the night sky together, learning how to read the stars.
When Harriet gave the command, the soldiers took the enemy completely by surprise. They burned down warehouses holding food and guns meant for Confederate soldiers. But the most important part of the raid was yet to come.
When they saw the warehouses burning, hundreds of enslaved people ran to Harriet’s boats from the nearby plantations. Whole families came: children, old people, mothers carrying babies in their arms. Harriet loaded the boats with as many people as they could carry. And when the ships returned to the Union, they did not just carry tales of victory. They carried 750 newly free people, and the woman people called Moses.
When the Civil War ended, slavery did too. But Harriet’s work did not. For the rest of her long life, Harriet fought for justice: for black Americans, for women, for the poor and elderly. And as the story of Moses once moved Harriet, we tell her story today, so that we might have the courage to finish what she started.
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