Free for Christmas.
Jesus, Jesus will go with you, He will lead you to his throme; He who died has gone before you, Trod the wine-press all alone.
Of all those who heard the song, of all those who blessed and cursed the singer, only a handful knew that the song was a code, saying that the woman known as "the Woman," the woman known as "the General," the woman known as Moses, was in the Cambridge, Maryland, area, and doing business at the same old stand.
The words of the song rose, fell, and died away. And the men and women to whom the words were addressed, the men and women who knew, listened in the silence, knowing that it was time to fish or cut bait, and that the odds were with the fish. What made the odds tolerable, or at least debatable, was the woman singing the song - Harriet Ross Tubman. She had escaped from slavery in this very area, and had returned five times to lead out 30 or 40 slaves. Now, in the Christmas, in 1854, she was back, calling for recruits.
As dawn neared, Harriet Tubman quickened her pace. She was in a hurry. Three of her brothers were in danger of being sold, and she had come South to move their cases to a higher court.
How did she know her brothers were in danger?
The word had come to her in one of her famous premonitions. She had been working in the North, saving her money for a slave strike, when, as she said later, she "became much troubled in spirit about her brothers." Acting upon this premonition, Tubman, who could neither read nor write, used a stratagem that had served her well in the past. She persuaded a friend to write a coded letter to jacob jackson, a literate free Black who lived near the plantation where her three brothers worked. Since the authorities were monitoring the mail of jacob jackson, who was suspected of being involved in other slave rescues, it was necessary to use extreme caution. The letter sent to jackson bore the signature of his adopted son, who lived in the North. The letter contained several innocuous paragraphs and the following message:
"Read my letter to the old folks, and give my love to them, and tell my brothers to be always watching unto prayer, and when the good old ship of Zion comes along, to be ready to step on board."
This was a blunder, for jackson's parents were dead, and be had no brothers, two facts that aroused the suspicions of the inspectors who examined the mail of free Blacks. The matter was discussed pro and con by the authorities, who finally summoned jackson and asked him what the letter meant. jackson recognized immediately that the letter meant that Harriet Tubman was coming and that he should alert her brothers, who, as she suspected, were in danger of being sold South. But nothing in his demeanor betrayed him as he read the letter slowly and then threw it down, saying: "That letter can't be meant for me no how; I can't make head or tail of it." After compounding the confusion of the inspectors, jackson informed Tubman's brothers that she was on the way and that they should be ready at the signal to start for the North.
While all this was going on, Tubman was completing her preparations in the North. The trip required a certain amount of money for food, transportation, and bribes for greedy Whites. There were other urgencies; a pair of stout shoes for days and nights of walking, paregoric for babies and others who couldn't be talked into silence, and a well-oiled revolver for various and sundry purposes. When these items were assembled in December, 1854, Tubman disappeared from her Northern haunts and reappeared in the thickly wooded forests surrounding the plantations of Dorchester County, Maryland, where she rendezvoused with a group of slaves on Christmas Eve, 1854.
The group included two of her brothers, Benjamin, 28, and Robert, 35, and two slaves from nearby plantations, John Chase, 20, and Peter Jackson. There was one woman, Jane Kane, 22, who said her master, Rash Jones, was "the worst man in the country."
Tubman ran her eyes over the group, noticing for the 20th time that there was one absentee, her brother Henry. Where was he? What could have held him up? She looked to the left and right, and then gave the word: forward. One can imagine the hurt in her heart. But it was a rule: Time was freedom, and she waited for no one. The first stop, she announced, would be the cabin of her parents, 40 miles to the north in Caroline County.
The Eastern Shore, with its forests and hills and rivers and creeks, was home base for Tubman, and she quickly and expertly led the group to the cabin of her elderly parents. It was late Christmas Eve when they arrived, and she bypassed the cabin and established a command post in the fodder house. This was a tactical decision, which speaks volumes for the iron discipline Tubman demanded of herself and others. She had not seen her mother for five years, but her mother was given to emotional outbursts of screaming and crying, outbursts that could alert the enemy and endanger the plan. Rather than risk this, Tubman denied herself and her brothers what they desired most, the pleasure of speaking to their mother and comforting her on Christmas Day. Without a trace of sentiment, she sent two non-family members, John Chase and Peter Jackson, to awaken her father, who dressed hurriedly and brought food to the fodder house. Before entering the fodder house, Old Ben, as he was called, tied a handkerchief around his eyes. He was sure to be asked after the escape had he seen his children. And he wanted to be able to say with honesty in his voice that he had not seen them.
Despite this precaution, it was clear to Old Ben that someone was missing. Where was Henry? What had happened to him? Harriet didn't know, and his absence troubled her.
Henry was miles away, following the path left by Tubman. He had been poised to leave at the appointed hour when an emergency occurred. His wife, big with baby, bad come down with labor pains, and Henry bad hurried off to get the granny After the baby was born, Henry tiptoed to the door; determined to seize what he believed was his last chance for freedom. The voice of his wife stopped him. "Where are you going, Henry?" She hadn't been told of the danger hanging over his head; but she sensed the uneasiness in him, and she knew, without knowing, that he was going to try to escape. Henry said nothing of this now, answering, as he went through the door, that he was going to see a man about some extra Christmas work. For a long time he stood outside the door, listening to the moans and sobs of his wife. And then, all of a sudden, he threw open the doors and rushed to the arms of his wife. "Oh, Henry," she said. "You going to leave me. I know it. But wherever you go, Henry, don't forget me and the little children."
Henry assured her that he had no intention of leaving her and the children in slavery. Moses would come for her, he said, as she had come for him. With these words, he began his journey, and reached the fodder house at daybreak on Christmas morning.
By this time, rain was pouring down, and the little band of rebels huddled together for warmth and waited for nightfall. As they waited, they watched the mother and father through wide chinks in the boards of the fodder house. All day long, at measured intervals, the mother would come out of the cabin and look down the road to see if "the boys" were on their way. They had always come before on Christmas Day, and this was a special Christmas. The pig had been slaughtered, and the bacon and sausages and chitlins were ready. What could have happened to the boys"? Had they been sold South? Woud she never see them again?
From their hiding places in the fodder house, a few yards away, Tubman and "the boys" watched, biting their lips and remaining silent. When at last darkness came, they went up to the cabin and peered through the window. "Through the little window of the cabin," Tubman told her biographer, "they saw [the mother] sitting by the fire, her head on her hand, rocking back and forth, as was her way when she was in great trouble, praying no doubt, and wondering what had become of her children." Tears streaming down their eyes, Harriet Tubman and "the boys" said "Merry Christmas" and farewell, silently, and walked into the night toward freedom.
Thus began a hazardous trip of hundreds of miles with each step a threat. The trip led northward and eastward to the Delaware line and northward to Wilmington, Delaware. Traveling by night, hiding by day, fording streams and creeks, threading the forests, always aware of the pursuers behind them and the allies of the pursuers all around them, Tubman and her passengers moved doggedly onward, following the North Star. There was no rhyme or reason to the route. It zigged and zagged and doubled back on itself. The only map was the exigency of the moment. The only road was survival. The only guide was the improvisational genius of Harriet Tubman. There was a reward of $12,000 on her head, and she probably would have been burned alive if caught. But this didn't seem to bother her as she played cat and mouse with the military might of the South. Sometimes, in response to the internal antenna which always warned her of danger, she ordered a change in the route. Sometimes she hid the group in the forest or in a ditch and went on ahead to scout the territory and forage for food or assistance.
And so, hunted, hidden, and harried, with Harriet Tubman bullying, encouraging and leading, the pilgrims found themselves at last in Wilmington, where they were aided by the famous Underground Railroad conductor, Thomas Garrett. In a letter to J. Miller McKim of the Philadelphia Vigilance committee, Quaker Garrett said, "We made arrangements last night [December 28] and sent away Harriet Tubman with six men and one woman to Allen Agnew's, to be forwarded across the country to the city. Harriet, and one of the men had worn their shoes off their feet and I gave them two dollars to help fit them out, and directed a carriage to be hired at my expense, to take out ...."
In Philadelphia, Tubman and her passengers were received and "examined" by William Still, the bold Black leader of the Underground Railroad. Still worshipped Tubman and considered her the greatest of all American heroines. She was, he recalled later, "a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without equal."
After the examination of Tubman and her passengers, Still and his group provided clothing, food, and money and, according to the surviving report, "they went on their way rejoicing."
From Philadelphia, the pilgrims traveled to New York City, Troy, Syracuse, and Rochester, New York. They walked part of the way but also used boats, wagons, and even the railroad. This part of the trip was less hazardous than the journey through Delaware and Maryland; but it was still perilous, and constant vigilance was necessary to outwit lawmen and professional slave-hunters, who were vested with enormous power under the Fugitive Slave Law. For this reason and for others as well, Tubman frowned on premature celebrations and insisted on maximum discipline until the group reached Niagara Falls. Then, as the pilgrims crossed Suspension Bridge into Canada, the human being behind the military commander would explode into song:
Glory to God and Jesus too, One more soul is safe! Oh, go and carry the news, One more soul got safe!
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|Title Annotation:||story of Harriet Tubman's freeing of slaves|
|Author:||Bennett, Lerone, Jr.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1994|
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