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The Moses of Her People – a Surprising Connection

By Rebecca Price Janney, May 11 2017 12:47PM

The story I’m about to relate to you is one I hadn’t thought of for a long time, not until last night while reviewing my son’s homework. His social studies class is learning about the Civil War, or as my Southern-background husband likes to call it “the war of defense against northern aggression.” He always gets a big harrumph from me and a smile from David when he says that! One of the aspects of that time period was, of course, abolitionism, and a leading personality David’s class is looking at is none other than John Brown. I told David a story about him that most people have never heard, unless they’re history geeks or happen to have read my books, Harriet Tubman or Great Women in American History.

Tubman is famous for having rescued more than 300 people after escaping from slavery in Maryland. She made some nineteen trips back to the land of her captivity to guide others to the freedom she now enjoyed in spite of being illiterate and penniless; the money she made as a domestic in Philadelphia was mainly to fund her rescue missions. Harriet had another infirmity that would’ve kept most people in their Lazy Boys.

When she was a girl, she witnessed a slave trying to run away from the plantation they lived on. She ran ahead to warn him the overseer was hot on the trail, and the three of them ended up in a confrontation at a store in the village. The overseer told Harriet to help him tie up the runaway, but she refused. The runaway used the distraction to bolt, and the enraged overseer picked up a two-pound iron weight and flung the object toward the slave. The weight missed its target, but struck Harriet on the head. For weeks she hovered between life and death. She did recover eventually, but throughout the rest of her life she had a tendency to fall asleep suddenly, anytime and anywhere. When Harriet became an in-demand abolitionist speaker, she was known to nod off on the platform making her perhaps the only speaker in American history who ever put herself to sleep!

As a public figure, Harriet became well acquainted with some of that era’s leading celebrities, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass. Even the radical abolitionist John Brown consulted her about his proposed raid through the South, and this is where David’s social studies lesson comes in.

Brown had a high regard for Harriet, referring to her as “General Tubman,” and he secured her promise of recruiting men for his effort to start a slave revolt. When Brown made his famous attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia to secure weapons, however, Harriet was so ill with one of her sleeping spells she didn’t even know where she was. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown, five black men, and thirteen whites seized the arsenal, killing the mayor and taking some townspeople as prisoners. Two days later the state militia, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, closed in, and only five of Brown’s conspirators escaped. One of his sons died in the conflict, a second went to the gallows, like his father who was hanged on December 2, content as he said, “to die for God’s eternal truth.”

Once Harriet had recovered, she was too late to send her volunteers, and John Brown was dead. She decided to drop out of sight for a while because her name was mentioned in the Senate committee investigating the touchy incident that led the nation even closer to war. In fact, not until much later was the full extent of her involvement with Brown and his campaign known publicly. She revered the militant Brown for the rest of her life, though, considering him a courageous man of God and a true liberator of her people.

Incidentally, Brown’s raid inspired not only a popular song, “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave,” but one of our nation’s most beloved tunes. I’ll save that story for another time!

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman
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