In 1820, in Maryland, a girl was born into slavery and given the name Harriet. She was the great-great-granddaughter of a woman kidnapped from the African plains and sold to the highest bidder in Baltimore. At the age of seven Harriet was charged with caring for Miss Sarah’s baby. One time the baby cried out just as Miss Sarah entered the room. Harriet, knowing that a crying baby meant a whipping for her, ran away and hid in a pigpen. From her hiding place she gazed rapt at a great star, a star she had long loved, for the star was always there, at dusk and at dawn, staying in the same place even as all the other stars moved steadily across the sky. “That’s the North Star, child,” Daddy Ben had explained. “The best star there is.” All through her childhood, through the cruelties and deprivations of plantation life, Harriet looked for that star morning and evening. Often in her dreams she found herself walking through thick forests and wide fields, on a great journey, guided always by her shining star. “I have made Thee Polestar of my life.”
Old Ben taught Harriet the ways of the forest: the best hiding places, wild foods to eat, how to guide herself in the day by the moss on the trees and at night by her beloved North Star. These skills she absorbed on journeys with Old Ben deep into the forest for secret gatherings—gatherings where the assembled slaves could sing forbidden songs about their great hero Moses, the one who had inspired his enslaved people to break away from their masters and make their way to the Promised Land.
At age fifteen Harriet was a grown woman, doing heavy work as well as the strongest man, and preparing herself inwardly for her own escape from slavery by means so secret and so dangerous that they were spoken of only in whispers—the Underground Railroad. Even then the freedom she longed for was not only for herself but for all her people. When her friend Jim made his break, only a few feet ahead of his pursuing master, Harriet unhesitatingly shielded his flight with her own body, and in doing so took a blow to the head that put her in a coma.
When, after many months lying helpless in bed, Harriet began to recover, word came to her that Jim had made it to the North. Profoundly encouraged, she set her will irrevocably on following in her friend’s footsteps—north, to freedom. And so, even as men were on their way to take her to be sold down the river to the cotton plantations of the Deep South, Harriet slipped away. Hidden in thick shrubbery outside the Big House, she sang her farewell to her sister inside:
When that old chariot comes,
I’m going to leave you.
I’m bound for the Promised Land.
Travelling north at night guided by the North Star, and in the daytime by the moss on the north side of trees, wading miles through river water to hide her scent from the dogs she knew would be on her trail, Harriet soldiered on—silently humming the song of her dream: “For I’m bound for the Promised Land.” Narrowly avoiding a group of four Patrollers on the hunt for runaway slaves, protected and passed on from station to station of the Underground Railroad, Harriet’s heart sang out: “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell Pharaoh, let my people go.” At the most dangerous point, just before the border into the free state of Pennsylvania, even as she was dropping with exhaustion, she heard a quiet and friendly voice: “I bring you a ticket for the Railroad.” A suit of men’s overalls, a workman’s cap, a rake over her shoulder, and Harriet walked across the heavily guarded bridge with her new friend—to all appearances two black workingmen going to jobs in Wilmington. There Thomas Garrett, Wilmington stationmaster for the Underground Railroad, outfitted her in a lady’s fine clothes and heavy black veil, and carried her in his own carriage outside city limits. An hour’s walk and Harriet was in Pennsylvania. “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. 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.”
In her joy Harriet saw the work God had for her: “I’m a stranger in a strange land. But I’m free. And my people shall be free also. I will make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I will bring them all here.” At Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, standing before the great bell that had rung out to proclaim American freedom, she turned to William Still, who was to be a loyal friend and fellow worker in the fight to end slavery, and poured out her passionate determination: “There are three million of my people on the plantations in the South. I must go down, like Moses into Egypt, and lead them out.” And lead them out she did—her life constantly in danger, her very existence a threat to every slave owner. Utterly fearless, Harriet let nothing stop her journeys to bring groups of slaves out of bondage.
When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the free states of the North unsafe, Harriet carried her people across the border into Canada, where by law no man could be a slave. Here was born St. Catharines—final terminus of the Underground Railroad—born out of Harriet’s furious labor through the harsh Ontario winter. Winter’s end saw log roads and cabins, donated grain sown in ploughed fields—frozen mud transformed into a true home for her family and many others. With St. Catharines as a base, Harriet Tubman, now widely known as “Moses,” continued her now much longer forays into the South. The price on her head rose to $40,000.
With the beginning of the Civil War, she thrust herself into the Union army, where she soon found herself in charge of the thousands of fleeing slaves who were seeking sanctuary with the Union troops. Under her guidance hospitals were set up, schools for the children, vast encampments for the destitute refugees, and trade schools where the adults learned skills that could become their means of livelihood: housekeeping, cooking, sewing, farming, the building trades.
Harriet lived on after the war until 1913, to the last day of her life fighting for her people, for disadvantaged people everywhere—taking into her own care a steady stream of lost souls in need of a home or just her encouragement and love. When she knew her end was near, Harriet called her friends and family around her, to pray together and sing together, “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.”
Oh! I will come back again and again!
Crossing a million crags of suffering,
With bleeding feet, I will come,
If need be, a trillion times,
As long as I know that
One stray brother is left behind.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing