I have opened with this video as a powerful depiction of Harriet Tubman’s character and strength. This twenty-five minute animated video aired on Discovery, does an excellent job outlining the difficulties of travel for the slaves. Many were too scared to even attempt the escape. Tubman however, continually went back and forth using the Underground Railroad collecting as many slaves as she could, and bringing them safely to the North even though she had a $40 000 reward of capture. This video evokes powerful emotion, even as an animation. Her strength, desire, and trust in God, truly brought her to the ‘Promised Land’.
Larson’s 2012 article “”Racing for freedom” depicts Harriet Tubman as one of the most influential abolitionists of the 19th century. She helped escort many slaves and loved ones to freedom and by “mid-decade her reputation as a daring and resourceful secret conductor of fugitive slaves had spread far and wide in Northern abolition circles and underground networks, prompting William Lloyd Garrison to dub her ‘Moses the deliverer’”(Larson). Harriet Tubman used the Underground Railroad as her pathway to freedom.
The narratives of slaves during their escape are essential for modern day society to have a glimpse at the powerful accounts of their journey. It is not easy for modern day society to fully comprehend the severity and danger of their journey. Sydney Howard Gay, a fellow fugitive in New York City known to Tubman, recorded a detailed journal of the slaves he encountered on his journey to freedom. Gay recorded the stories and personal accounts of “nearly 220 freedom seekers from January 1855 through November 1856, Gay’s meticulous accounting has left us with a treasure trove rich with dramatic real life stories of success and failure along the Underground Railroad” (Larson). The Underground Railroad was truly a lifeline for slaves, and helped many achieve freedom in the North. Many of those who were successful, became well-known abolitionists (such as Frederick Douglass) and helped their loved ones begin their passage to freedom as well (such as Harriet Tubman).
Slaves were worth a substantial amount of money and investment. As discussed previously, they were the main income and wealth of the Southern states and profit to land-owners. When slaves ran away, their masters were determined to find them and bring them back. The more the slaveholders offered to pay the catchers for the reward and the more description in the advertisements given, the more secretive and fearful of capture the runaway slave had to be.
In Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, “The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, Dr. Flint, her master, is determined to find her. Upon her escape, he posts an advertisement on every corner of nearby towns reading:
Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, named Linda, 21 years of age. Five feet four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made straight. Has a decayed spot on a front tooth. She can read and write, and in all probability will try to get to the Free States. All persons are forbidden, under penalty of the law, to harbour or employ said slave. $150 will be given to whoever takes her in the state, and $300 if taken out of the state and delivered to me, or lodged in jail.
Dr. Flint (Jacobs 230).
Jacobs travelled to many places of America forced to trust both white and black men and women to lead her to safety in the North. With so many slave-catchers looking for her in hopes of collecting the reward, Jacobs was forced to remain in hiding in a loophole for over seven years. Jacobs recounts what she has heard slave-catchers converse, “I’ll catch any nigger for the reward. A man ought to have what belongs to him, if he is damned brute” (253). She lived in this loophole in absolute fear of being found out. She did everything in her power, including using her literacy to trick her master, to remain a secret until she could meet her children in New York.
This map shows the many different routes of the Underground Railroad leading from the Southern states to the free North.
Larson points out that “in his first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, published in 1845, Douglass explained to his readers that he could not reveal the secret network of supporters who populated the Underground Railroad” (Larson 2012). This secret network of supports is the same ticket that Harriet Tubman used to free so many slaves into the North.
Douglass, after making it to the free North writes, “I know come to the part of my life during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery. But before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all facts connected with the transaction. . . it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. I would rather than exculpate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery” (Douglass 95). Douglass goes on the reference the underground railroad as the upperground railroad and honours those who had opened their doors for the escape of slaves (96).
Douglass writes that he has been frequently asked about his situation once he arrived in the free states. Douglass was lonely in the city, and afraid to talk to anyone in fear of being kidnapped back into slavery. He had indeed escaped the ‘lions’ den’ of slavery, but was not yet a free man in this free state. To those who do not understand the hardships of a fugitive slave in New York, Douglass explains, “I say, let him place himself in my situation – without home or friends – without money of credit – wanting shelter, and no one to give it – wanting bread, and no money to buy it, – and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay, – perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape, – in the midst of plenty, yet midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist, – [. . . ] not till then, will be fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave” (100). This is one of the most powerful passages of Frederick Douglass’ narrative. Throughout the descriptive narrative, the contemporary audience may feel as though they understand the toils, fears and extreme suffering of Douglass and other slaves, however, Douglass makes it clear, that the struggle does not end with the escape to the North. Once the slaves enter into the North, they are in turn punished with continual despair. They literally have nowhere to go, amoungst a city full of people, houses, food and jobs. They are homeless, scared and alone, beginning a new devastating chapter in their lives.
The Underground Railroad was an essential network for the slaves seeking freedom in the 19th century. Harriet Tubman changed the way slaves were viewed in American society by bringing so many to freedom. She was dubbed the modern day “Moses” indicating her will to carry on and save her people from slavery using the Underground Railroad. Harriet Jacobs possessed a similar desire to escape her master’s bondage in her narrative. Her motherly love, self-reconciliation and literacy brought her children out of slavery. She travelled to many places of hiding in pursuit of freedom with help from the Underground Railroad and her friends and wrote her narrative to encourage slaves and sentimentalize with the middle class to dismantle oppression. Douglass, like Tubman and Jacobs, travelled the Underground Railroad to free himself and become an avid abolitionist performing the most inspirational speeches and published newspapers.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life and Frederick Douglass, and American Slave.” Modern Libray. New York: 2004. p.4-110.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Modern Library. New York: 2004. p.120-350.
Larson, Kate Clifford. “Racing for freedom: Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad network through New York.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. 2012.
Stewart, Anna. “Revising ‘Harriet Jacobs’ for 1865” American Literature. 2010. p701-724.