Harriet Tubman Tribute Essay

Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln as Agents for Freedom and Equality: Role Models for the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project

[The following essay was authored by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, associate dean and director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs and the U.S. Pluralism Center at Hartwick College, the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project and the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research at Hartwick College.] 

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 later, 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 Office of Intercultural Affairs and 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 Classics.

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.

Harriet Tumban Mentoring Project Research

Hayley Dyer ’15, a 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. The 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.

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 matthewsh@hartwick.edu for more information.

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