Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy to be celebrated

lfabian@macon.comMarch 8, 2013 

A century ago, as Harriet Tubman drew her last breath, the former slave remained focused on others.

“The last words she uttered were ‘I go to prepare a place for you,’” said Patricia Driskell-Stephens, guest services coordinator for the Tubman African American Museum. “She was always looking out for others.”

On Sunday, the 100th anniversary of her death, the Macon museum will honor the legacy of the brave woman who helped forge a trail to freedom for hundreds of people through the Underground Railroad.

From 3 to 5 p.m., the Tubman museum at 340 Walnut St. will present tours, a reception, a re-enactment and other special tributes.

Admission is free for members. Non-members can pay $10 for individual admittance or $25 for a family of four. The museum also lists friend rates at $50 and patrons pay $125. Sunday’s admission for non-members includes a one-year membership.

“They celebrate March 10 because no one knows for sure her birthday. They didn’t record the births of slaves,” Driskell-Stephens said.

Sometime between 1820 and 1822, Tubman was born Araminta Ross to slaves in Dorchester County, Md. She was nicknamed “Minty.”

Around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free man, and took her mother’s name of Harriet.

Fearing she would be sold away from her family after the death of her owner, she escaped with her two brothers, some accounts say.

The men got cold feet and wanted to turn back.

With a strong determination, she escorted them home and set out alone, leaving her the only one to cross into freedom.

Tubman would put her life in jeopardy at least 19 times as she crossed back into the South to lead others away from bondage.

On her first two trips back, she rescued her siblings.

The third time, she went to retrieve her husband, only to find he had remarried and would not leave.

Tubman found other slaves seeking freedom and led the way across the Mason-Dixon line.

In her documented excursions on the Underground Railroad, Tubman led at least 300 others to the North via safe houses along the way.

She helped countless others by sharing survival secrets, such as using sap to throw off the bloodhounds and following the North Star.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered the return of all escaped slaves to their Southern masters, which forced Tubman into Canada with her human cargo.

She carried the scars of whippings and suffered intense headaches and seizures most of her life due to a head injury.

As a young teen, Tubman was nearly killed protecting another slave from an angry overseer. The man threw a 2-pound iron weight that hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious.

By 1856, there was a $40,000 bounty on her head.

The wanted poster stated she was illiterate, so when Tubman overheard men reading it, she pretended to be reading a book and avoided capture.

“She was a modestly educated woman, who obviously had brains,” said Richard Keil, founder of the Tubman Museum. “With all these people looking for her, she was able to keep everyone safe from furious slave owners.”

As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she never lost a passenger.

Keil thought long and hard about whom to honor as the museum namesake and began researching Tubman. He even drove to New York to visit her grave and former home.

For decades, he had yearned to call attention to the overlooked contributions of blacks.

After the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Keil was working in the fields of Alabama during his summer breaks from Catholic seminary.

“I saw the oppression and the terrorism afflicted on people,” said Keil, who bought the Tubman building with his own finances while serving as pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

With a heart grieving for the plight of blacks in the civil rights era, he had volunteered to pastor black churches.

Looking for the roots of racism, he realized no one was celebrating the achievements of people of color.

“You could never go anywhere to see a black person’s face on the wall with a sense of accomplishment,” said the former priest.

Growing up in Wisconsin, a black student was vice president of Keil’s class of 1951 and one of the head cheerleaders was also black.

“I had images of the strength and goodness of the African American in my mind,” Keil said.

Tubman epitomized those qualities and her name transcended Macon, as did his mission for equality that inspired the museum and the purchase of the building in 1981.

She served as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.

She threatened to use her pistol on any slave who wanted to turn back and endanger the others.

“You’ll be free or die,” she is quoted as saying.

On her Auburn, N.Y., property given to her by abolitionist Sen. William Seward, she built a home for women and the aged and cared for others until her death.

“She really had a profound intellect and resilience and was never looking for too much self-adulation. She kept her eyes on the task at hand,” Keil said.

Now Tubman’s legacy also lives on through the Macon museum that bears her name. It’s a place for blacks and whites to come together and celebrate universal arts, not necessarily million-dollar masterpieces, he said.

“Where you can see a little bit of yourself and raise your own talents and aspirations,” Keil said.

The museum, which has plans to resume construction of their new building on Cherry Street, is also a place for continuing discussions on race.

Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m., author Dodie Cantrell-Bickley will sign copies of her novel, “Reason of Fools.”

The former general manager of WMAZ and retired Gannett executive used her parents’ experiences in World War II to tell the story of prejudice on two fronts, Nazi Germany and the United States.

In a free lecture at 7 p.m. Sunday, Cantrell-Bickley will share some of her experiences researching the book that traces the Black Panthers of Fort Hood, Texas. The men eagerly fought to help free those imprisoned by the Nazis, but as African-Americans did not enjoy all the liberties of their white counterparts.

“They were fighting for what they knew America would one day be,” Cantrell-Bickley said.

The book’s title come’s from Voltaire’s “Prejudice is the reason of fools.”

She tells the story of those who aspired to victory over fascism, and victory over racism at home -- the so-called “Double V” campaign.

During Sunday’s reception, World War II veterans are invited to share stories about how enemies on the civil rights front at home became comrades overseas.

The videotaped interviews will be archived at the museum that honors another combat veteran, freedom fighter and pioneer.

Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War.

As Nicole Thurston Abdou, the museum’s sales and marketing director said, “That’s one tough lady.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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