I wrote the piece below a year ago which I am reposting because it shows how even Harriet Tubman’s story speaks to the rationale for Reparations. Almost 200,000 slaves fought in the US Civil War and less than half of them received pensions for their war efforts. Even Harriet Tubman in her senior years had to struggle for years to receive a monthly pension of $20. Did they not deserve something in return for all they had contributed to the building of the country? I ask you to consider this as you think about the issue of reparations. As always, in the spirit civil and respectful debate that has come to be the trademark of Baileyblog readers, send your comments and your questions below.
Harriet Tubman and the Fragility of Freedom
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I took my students to the Harriet Tubman house in Auburn NY and that we were given a brilliant tour by Reverend Paul Carter and his wife. There were many things about this tour that stood out for me beyond anything and everything that I had read about Harriet Tubman.
There was her heroism as an Underground Railroad conductor, her service in the Civil War as a spy and her provision of a home for the aged after the war. Her initial purchase of the Auburn property in 1857 was remarkable in of itself because it was, after all, 1857. How many women owned property in 1857 much less a Black female former slave?
But one thing still lingered in my mind—well actually two things. The first is Harriet’s pig farm. So Harriet buys the first parcel of this land from fellow Auburn abolitionist, former Governor and US Senator William Seward, and sets up a pig farm. Sometime after that, we are told that Harriet lost almost all of her 40 pigs. Someone in the area fed them food laced with poison. In one night, her entire livestock and source of income was destroyed.
Harriet had already been through so much – countless harrowing trips to the South rescuing slaves as well as service as a scout, nurse and soldier in the Civil War. Now here she was officially a free woman with property, but STILL not able to hold onto that property in peace.
I wonder what Harriet felt the morning she woke up to find herself a free woman but a woman whose freedom was so fragile. How did she go on?
Here she was practicing self reliance yet being cut off at the knees. Yes, slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment but there were no reparations for their unpaid labor. Pensions, even for the thousands who served in the Civil War, were hard to come by. Harriet herself fought for many years before receiving a monthly pension of $20 in 1899– thirty four years after the war.
No one could have been surprised if this event had broken her…but it didn’t.
According to many accounts, Harriet was a woman of faith who prayed about everything. She even wrote her own Negro spirituals or gospel songs. We don’t know exactly how she recovered her resolve to go on after such a devastating loss, but we do know that she seemed to keep putting one foot in front of another.
At some point later, she gave $500 towards the building of the AME Zion church and it is that church who to this day has preserved her property and her memory. They have been the bearers of witness of Harriet’s home drawing on published records and oral histories of her existing descendants.
Maybe Harriet Tubman is speaking to some of us today—some of us who given recent events in the United States and in the world are wondering how we can go on and what to do next. Maybe Harriet Tubman and how she dealt with loss can be a source of inspiration for us today.
She recognized the fragility of her freedom but was undaunted. She put one foot in front of another and fought the good fight to the end.
Anne C. Bailey
Author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
African Voices of the Atlantic: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Beacon Press, 2005)
Picture courtesy of Library of Congress, Public Domain.