I Expect You To Lead Me: Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

I expect you to lead me Harriet Tubman

 

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and then returned to free hundreds of other slaves. She did this by listening to God’s voice and risking her life to free others who were enslaved. 

Tubman lived from 1822 to 1913. She was just 5 feet 3 inches tall but was strong and courageous. She came to be called “Moses” because she delivered her people from slavery. Tubman became one of America’s greatest heroes and is remembered as an American abolitionist, political activist advocating for women’s rights to vote, and founder of a home for the elderly. 

Harriet’s Faith

Harriet was a devout Christian, raised in the Methodist Church. She never learned to read or write but gleaned wisdom from a young age by learning Bible stories and memorizing long passages of Scripture. She often drew on Scriptures in her public talks and conversations with people.

She learned to listen for and rely on God’s voice. Abolitionist Quaker Thomas Garrett, who worked with her, said, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” In the movie Harriet, she’s asked what God’s voice sounds like and she says:

“Sometime it sting like a smack in the face. Other time it soft like a dream, fly off soon as you woke. Seem like I learn to see and hear God like some learn to read a book. I put all my attention on it, act without a question, fore I can wonder if ever heard it all, fore I can understand what it mean.” 

Harriet sang the many “Negro Spirituals” that were popular among African Americans. This was a tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves. They’d sing these gospel songs, repeating the choruses over and over, in church, at celebrations, and while doing repetitive, hard manual labor. Singing helped them bond together in the presence and power of the Lord. Most slaves couldn’t read or write, and so this is how they passed on Bible stories and values. 

Some songs also contained coded messages on escaping from slavery. Two popular examples of songs that were favorites of Harriet, according to her biographer, are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away.” When this was sung as a signal, a slave would know to be ready to escape because the Underground Railroad was coming and Lord’s angels would assist them.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends that I’m coming, too,
Coming for to carry me home
Steal Away
Steal away, steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here
My Lord, He calls me
He calls me by the thunder
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here
Green trees are bending
Po’ sinner stand a-trembling
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here

Harriet’s Story

Much of what we know about Harriet’s life comes from two biographies written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a Presbyterian abolitionist who befriended Harriet and conducted multiple interviews to provide a record of Harriet’s remarkable life. Sarah published Scenes From the Life of Harriet Tubman in 1869 and Harriet Tubman: The Moses of her People in 1886. These books helped make Harriet famous and provided revenue for her work. 

Harriet’s maternal grandmother, “Modesty,” arrived in America on a slave ship from Africa. Her father was a free black man who worked as a woodsman and her mother was a slave who worked as a cook. They raised nine children on a cotton plantation in Maryland, including their fifth child, Minty, who later went by Harriet.

When Harriet was five or six years old, she was hired out as a nursemaid. She cared for “Miss Susan’s” baby and would cradle or rock it to sleep, but if the baby cried, then Harriet was whipped. Harriet wore layers of clothing to soften the blows and sometimes fought back or ran away. She carried many scars from the lashings. She also worked out in the fields and had to wade through marshes to check the clean-out traps that caught muskrat rodents. 

A horrible incident happened when she was 13-years old. An overseer threw a two-pound metal weight at an enslaved boy who was trying to flee and it hit Harriet and broke her skull. For the rest of her life, she suffered from seizures and headaches. But after this, she began experiencing visions from God and would hear the Spirit of God speak to her with clear words.

In 1844, when she was 22-years old, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Marriages between free people of color and slaves were common, as half of the black population in Maryland at the time was free.

In 1849, when she was 27-years old, her owner was going to sell her and her brothers to pay off his debts, as he had done with her older sisters. That would put them into the Deep South, farther from freedom and likely to experience worse abuse. She began praying for her master every day. “Oh, dear Lord, change that man’s heart and make him a Christian.” But “All the time he was bringing people to look at me and trying to sell me. I changed my prayer… I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way so he won’t do no more mischief.’”

Shortly after that, he died and Harriet was filled with remorse. “Oh, I would give the world full of silver and gold if I had it to bring that poor soul back; I would give everything! But he was gone, I couldn’t pray for him no more.”

Later that year, she heard the Lord’s voice urging her to flee to the North. “God’s time is always near,” she said. “He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.” She added, “I would fight for my liberty so long as my strength lasted, and if the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” So she prayed for God to make her strong, “I’m going to hold steady on to you [Lord], and I know you will see me through.” 

She traveled by night and hid by day. As she left, she whispered with a smile, “Farewell, ole Maser, don’t think hard of me, I’m going on to Canada, where all the slaves are free.” Her first stop was at a nearby community of Quaker Christians. Many Quakers, along with abolitionists and freed slaves, were part of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves to freedom. She traveled 90 miles on foot, which took her about one week.

When Tubman finally crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania’s free soil, she says, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

“I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution, I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there. Oh, how I prayed then, lying all alone on the cold damp ground; ‘Oh, dear Lord’, I said. ‘I haven’t got no friend but you. Come to my help Lord, for I’m in trouble!’”

The Lord did help her. In Philadelphia, she made friends with abolitionists, found odd jobs, and saved some money. Then she started working with the Underground Railroad to bring her family members, friends, and many other slaves to freedom in the North. On every trip South, she risked her life and had to elude dangers. There was a $300 reward for anyone who captured her to return her to her master. (That’s over $10,000 today.) Worse, when she returned to her husband she was devastated to discover that after she escaped he married a free woman. 

Over a period of eleven years, she made about 13 rescue missions and personally freed over 70 slaves. She assisted and directed many other slaves to freedom. During the Civil War in 1863, she served the Union army as a cook, nurse, and armed scout. She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in a battle that freed 700 slaves. 

She kept risking her life to help more slaves to know sweet freedom and dignity. Many times she barely escaped grave danger. Harriet relied on God to speak to her and to protect her as she lay in swamps, buried herself in potato fields, and crossed a high and rushing river. She also carried a gun to ward off slave catchers and dogs. She even threatened to shoot any escaping slave who wanted to turn back. Would she have shot anyone? “Yes,” she insisted, “if he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all and all who had helped us, and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man?”

Her biographer Sarah Bradford wrote, “Sudden deliverance never seemed to strike her as at all mysterious. Her prayer was the prayer of faith and she expected an answer… When surprise was expressed at her courage and daring, or at her unexpected deliverance, she would always reply, ‘Don’t, I tell you, Missus. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord!’” She’d simply pray to God, “I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ and he always did.”

Tubman was proud to say, “On my underground railroad, I never run my train off the track and I never lose a passenger.” 

Sources

Sarah Bradford, Wikipedia, Wikiquote, Harriet Tubman Historical Society, GodReports.com

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