Harriet Tubman Tribute Essays
The following essays by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of U.S. Pluralism Programs at Hartwick College, are presented as part of the 2013 events sponsored and hosted by the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project and the USCT Institute at Hartwick College to commemorate the centennial of Tubman's death on March 10, 1913. Images are from the Matthews Collection for the Preservation of African American Freedom Journey Classics.
January 4, 2013
Oneonta and Otsego County: The Other Link in the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail of Upstate New York
A Tribute to Harriet Tubman and a Lesser Known Sister
At a time when communities are bracing themselves for their involvement with the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death on March 10, 1913, it is not surprising that various sites are planning to honor their local folklore or documented role with the Underground Railroad. In the small city of Oneonta and the greater Otsego County, New York, laying in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, efforts at Hartwick College are leading the drive for preparing a case study of the local research efforts that document the important Underground Railroad link along the Upper Susquehanna River connecting Binghamton, Oneonta and Cooperstown. The aim is to provide a model for other communities to emulate, particularly those locales that are still trying to prove their respective links to one or more of estimated 100,000 enslaved persons who escaped from bondage between 1810-1850, or those who escaped later.
The idea for advancing efforts at Hartwick College with the goal of being a regional interpretive center of Underground Railroad studies belongs to Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of the U.S. Pluralism Center, who commenced research in 1978 regarding possible links between the Oneonta area and the Underground Railroad. His research over the past 15 years has served as a laboratory for select students at Hartwick College to learn this history first-hand. Today, the student group is known collectively as the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project has been recognized by several educational and historical organizations.
While it is still quite rare to be able to identify a map that includes at least one Underground Railroad site along that part of the Upper Susquehanna River that ends at Cooperstown, there has been progress made. After 15 years of research and recovery of documentation, the United States Colored Troops Institute at Hartwick College was designated in 2011 by the National Park Service as a [research] facility of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The USCTI is supported by the privately owned Matthews Collection for the Preservation of Freedom Journey Classics, which is comprised of 2,500 items. Included in the new 104-page bibliography of the collection are first editions of numerous abolitionists and participants of the Underground Railroad, including biographies, autobiographies, historical sketches, and novels by Frederick Douglass, Levi Coffin, William Still, Mary A. Livermore, Maria L. Childs, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe and numerous lesser known heroes and heroines.
Special additions among the items are newly published booklets by Matthews that have been accepted for copyright in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death. The first booklet, Harriet Tubman: Her Interview with the Anglo-African Published August 29, 1863, shares important aspects of Tubman's life story up to and including her role as a heroine of the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. A copy of the 1863 article is included in the Matthews Collection and has served as a signature item since 2007 for the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project at the college.
The second booklet, titled The Freedom Journey: The Underground Railroad to the Buffalo Soldiers in Otsego County, New York, shares Matthews' research findings that document Oneonta and the greater Otsego County as a part of the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail in upstate New York. Included is the discussion and a color visual of "Mama Lucretia" and her six children who escaped to Oneonta in 1860. The information in this booklet is rarely known, thus explaining why this locale has not been regularly identified as serving as a branch of the Susquehanna River' route to freedom, extending from Binghamton to Cooperstown. These two new items and others are positioning the USCTI as a regional interpretive center for researchers, tourists and history buffs.
In 1998, Congress authority the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act, which directed the National Park Service to formulate and implement plans honoring the Underground Railroad. Five years later, then-New York Governor George E. Pataki established Harriet Tubman Day in the Empire State to honor annually the death date of Tubman on March 10, 1913. Governor Pataki took an additional step in 2005, authorizing $1.4 million to support the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail Grant Program that ultimately funded approximately 21 sites in seven regions of the state. Included among the group were sites having permanent exhibits, as well as facilities able to serve as local or regional interpretive centers. Selected sites closest to Oneonta and Otsego County, but more than one hour away, were the John W. Jones Museum in Elmira, Chemung County, the Smithfield Community Center in Peterboro, Madison County, and the Stephens and Harriet Myers Residence in Albany. The three sites are respectively associated with the Southern Tier Region, Central New York Region, and the Capital Region and North Country. Oneonta and Otsego County are sometimes identified as part of the Central Leatherstocking Region, one that is not normally identified as having Underground Railroad connections. On the other hand, Oneonta and Otsego County are sometimes identified as part of the Southern Tier Region.
December 3, 2012
Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln as Agents for Freedom and Equality: Role Models for the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project
As the 2013 African American History Month commemorations overlap the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death, let us be mindful that her heroics were not for personal gain, but to confront unjust American laws that frowned upon the free legal status of black people in America, with the black family unit targeted for disrespect. Tubman took her experience from the abusive system of bondage and used it to justify her reckoning that enslaved persons had the God-given right to freedom and the protection of their families. Tubman's escape from slavery in 1849 provided real evidence of what enslaved persons in America had to do in order to gain freedom. She was one of approximately 100,000 runaway slaves between 1810-1850, yet received distinction because she risked her life during at least 17 escapades back into slave states to lead her family members, as well as others, to safety in the North.
Tubman's personal journey intersected with that of President Abraham Lincoln's. The President felt driven to preserve the Union at all costs, even if it meant allowing for the continuation of slavery. He later changed his opinion after finally realizing that slavery was the real cause of the war. Consequently, the President prepared himself to take positive action supportive of the enslaved Americans, who collectively became known as Freedmen. Lincoln, however, did not believe in the equality between blacks and whites. He struggled with the idea that the two races would never be able to live peaceful lives together within this society. Tubman and Lincoln crossed paths during the Civil War, when the epic battles, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment finally brought about the conclusion of legalized bondage in the United States. Today, the movie Lincoln shares an interpretation of the president's dilemma from one perspective, while Tubman's story is yet to be portrayed from the perspective of those who suffered the most.
The movie, Lincoln, focuses upon important events during the final four months of the president's life that ended with his assassination in April 1865. It is unfortunate that the film makers missed two great opportunities that linked the efforts of both Tubman and Lincoln. First, in mid-February, 1865, the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet became the first black man allowed to speak in the United States House of Representatives; his primary topic was slavery. Only days earlier the House of Representatives had passed by the required two-thirds majority the amendment to end slavery in the United States. Garnet was invited by Republicans to deliver an address commemorating the historic vote. The House chamber, during the recess, was filled, with black persons comprising about a third of the audience, according to records at the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a former slave, who had progressed to the level of acquiring a classical education at the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, Rev. Garnet was one of the "classical fifteen" scholars who had advanced the definition of the Colored American identity. While attending the 1843 Buffalo Convention of Colored men in New York, the 27-year-old Garnet advocated for his four million enslaved brethren and sisters to revolt. Twenty-two years later, he stood in the Capitol, better prepared than most to voice the God-given right of the racially oppressed. He stated:
The great day of the nation's judgment has come, and who shall be able to stand?
Even we, whose ancestors have suffered the afflictions which are inseparable from
a condition of slavery, for the period of two centuries and a half, now pity our land
and weep with those who weep.
The following is but one line in a speech that revealed scholarship, religious faith, and purpose, which was followed by a challenge:
Favored men, and honored of God as his instruments, speedily finish the work which
he has given you to do. Emancipate, enfranchise, educate, and give the blessings of
the gospel to every American citizen.
Certainly, Garnet's challenge was addressed to President Lincoln and other leaders. Only weeks before his assassination, President Lincoln had engaged General Benjamin Butler in a discussion regarding the removal of all the surviving black soldiers and their families from the United States for fear of an impending race war. He knew that with more than 150,000 black men surviving their role as soldiers they would never allow themselves and their families to return to the state of abuse that most had left upon their enlistment into the Union Army. The discussions were limited between Lincoln, Butler, and Secretary James Seward. A final decision by the president was cut short by an assassin's bullet. Consequently, he did not live long enough to witness the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by the states on December 6, 1865. But, history has placed Lincoln in eminence for ending slavery in this country and setting the Freedmen on a new path.
Collectively, the Freedmen advanced themselves during subsequent decades and generations, even as they were confronted with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and just pure racism. During the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Freedmen Descendants were joined by others at the 1963 March on Washington as a symbolic gesture of a changing America. Now, 50 years latter, with Michelle Obama as First Lady of the United States and a Freedmen Descendant, there is an opportunity to reconnect this generation of descendants to heroic personalities, such as Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Bishop Daniel A. Payne, and Washington, but also lesser known kindred. The time is urgent.
Now is the time to start preparing for a new scenario, one in which the storylines include voices from the darker brethren and sisters, helping to bring this country closer to its professed ideal of pluralism. One of the more meaningful tributes to Tubman and fellow spirits during 2013 would be to engage historians, preservationists, community activists, and others in pursuit of reconstructing the family histories of African Americans back to enslaved ancestors. A reason for this challenge is to support the African American History Month theme by exposing more details about the contributions made to this society by enslaved ancestors and their freemen brothers and sisters, contributing that are frequently only revealed through oral histories, family documents, and those early history books authored by African Americans that are rarely known. In pursuit of this aim, Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of the U.S. Pluralism Center at Hartwick College has prepared a 104-page bibliography of the privately owned Matthews Collection for the Preservation of African American Freedom Journey Classsics.
According to Matthews, "Too often the telling of stories about the formerly enslaved has been through romanticized novels written by black and white authors. Themes have often been derived from generalized notions and stereotypes about the good old days." He admits that some of the false depictions in the novels result from lack of knowledge by authors of where to locate factual information to support their interpretations of historical events.
Such distorted depictions have had the effect of recent generations of Freedmen Descendants wanting to distance themselves from the "demeaning cotton-pickers image" in the stories.
Hayley Dyer '15, a first-year member of the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project, the student chapter of the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research at Hartwick College, said, " Being someone who knows what it feels like not knowing my family history, I feel lost because I did not know where I came from." Dyer's mother is Irish-Italian and her father's lineage traces back to African Americans in Arkansas. The student from Hyde Park, New York, further expressed that she knows more about her mother's side of the family than her father's, although she did meet her paternal great-grandmother before the elder passed away. Dyer now wants to know more about the Arkansas connection and who was the elder ancestor who emerged from slavery. Another Tubman Mentor, Jenifer Benn '15 from Hudson, New York, concurred with Dyer's opinion. Benn states, "I feel lost too because there are parts of me that I do not know anything about. It makes me eager to want to know more about myself and my family. "
Dyer and Benn are two of 25 students annually who engage in primary research in pursuit of documenting personalities of the African American Freedom Journey. They participate because, as Kennequa Carlton '13 voiced, "History is what makes the person; it helps the world evolve each and every day, and it helps me to understand my place in time." Another Tubman Mentor, Laureena Harris '13 from Yonkers, NY, whose internship placed her in the White House last summer, voiced that "Given the transitions that occur in history, it is important that I understand how I have arrived at this place and time." Catherine Clase '13, also a Tubman Mentor from the Dominican Republic and the Bronx , was a co-presenter of "The Uplifting of the Race: The Role of the USCT in the Civil War and Its Historical Context" at the New York State Association's 2012 October Conference for Teachers in Cooperstown, New York. She exclaimed, "If you are not told about your history, how are you to know the truth; books don't tell all the truth."
The students are guided by Matthews, who is also the founding president of the USCT Institute and coordinates the efforts of the affiliated American Society of Freedmen Descendants. He is the grandson of Richard Parler, Jr, who emerged from slavery at 10 years of age in Denmark, South Carolina. Unlike Dyer, Matthews was introduced to his ancestors through the oral history given to him by his mother, Lucretia, who recently passed away at the age of 94. Two main personalities of the oral history, Richard Parler, Jr, the Grand Master West Indian Mason, and Isaac the African, the Killingsworth cabinetmaker, connected Matthews as a child to areas outside of the United States, as well as connected to his mother's assertion that she was fourth generation West Indian on both sides, extending back into the 1700s in South Carolina. The stories Matthews received placed him in the position to later document the family's oral history and place it within the historical context of the Freedom Journey.
In 1977, Matthews' story became a part of the New York Times article about Alex Haley's Roots and 20 years later, he had advanced further enough in his self-taught studies to establish the USCT Institute. Along the way, he had documented a family line of Anthony Johnson who arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 and whose granddaughter intermarried in 1682 with the Indian John Puckham. Matthews has documented the Puckham lineage to today, as well as documented the families of black Civil War soldiers in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Long Island, and Delaware and Otsego Counties, New York. His Tubman Mentors have assisted him with documenting two black soldiers in white Civil War regiments, a black Revolutionary War soldier, and a family that escaped to Oneonta, New York through the Underground Railroad. The effort has been so successful over the years that both the USCTI and HTMP have gained the attention of The American Historical Association, The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, The National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Today, the HTMP is searching for other students who are similarly exploring the past through experiential education, research, and/or group studies through various media. Peers will be invited to attend the Harriet Tubman - Buffalo Soldiers Student Conference, to be held at Hartwick College during the weekend of November 1-3, 2013. In preparation for the conference, the HTMP has decided to provide more guidance to potential peer researchers.
Through the use of the privately-owned Matthews Collection, Tubman Mentors have selected important documents that they have encountered during their research to share with potential researchers online. Tubman Mentors will also be accessible for consultations with peer researchers via e-mail at the U.S. Pluralism Center. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
2013 Harriet Tubman Commemoration Events at Hartwick College
The Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project (HTMP), the student chapter of the United States Colored Troops Institute at Hartwick College (USCTI), will host its fifth anniversary Harriet Tubman Civil War Dinner Discussion on Sunday, March 10, 2013 in honor of its namesake and as the kickoff of its involvements commemorating the centennial of the death date of the heroine.
Other local events will lead up to the group's hosting of the Harriet Tubman - Buffalo Soldiers Student Conference during the weekend of November 1-3, 2013.