Harriet Tubman was a woman of determination. Regrettably I knew absolutely nothing about her. And then suddenly a few years back I read a news article that indicated that she was to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Certainly, I learned nothing about her from what passed as a “formal education.” Worse still, in my subsequent readings of American history, I never read about her remarkable story. This informative documentary finally remedied another lacuna in my understanding of American history.
The Director, Robert Fernandez, released this movie in 2018. There were a number of interviews with historians such as Dr. Eric Lewis Williams of the Smithsonian and Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Tubman was born into slavery around 1820-21, the 5th child of nine. Her real name was Araminta. She and her family were not in the South’s “cotton belt.” Rather, she lived in Dorchester Co., Maryland, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, about on the same latitude as Washington, DC. Thus, Pennsylvania, and freedom were tantalizingly near.
As a young slave she was whipped for stealing a bit of sugar. She would retain those scars all her life. In another incident, involving a slave who was attempting to run away, she was hit in the forehead with a weight; it would be another lifetime scar. The 1849 death of the plantation owner, who owned her, and who had heavy debts, was the catalyst for her to escape, since she was afraid that she would be sold to pay for part of those debts. At the time, she was married to a free black man. How that works was never really explained; presumably he had independent accommodation – was she ever allowed to stay there? He did threaten to turn her in to the authorities if she carried out her plans. The documentary made sure to categorize him as “sorry.” A mild critique. They were soon divorced.
Once she had made it to Pennsylvania, she was not content with just her own freedom. She would return 19 times and conveyed an estimated 300 slaves to freedom. The Quakers, who, in 1791, decided that slavery was wrong, were a backbone of the “Underground Railroad,” hiding the slaves in their homes. At times, Tubman had to play “dumb,” on her ventures back to Maryland, and would do a “step and fetch it routine” with a chicken she carried, when white men were near. She earned the sobriquet “Moses,” for leading slaves to freedom. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that meant taking them all the way to Canada.
It was even more surprising to learn that she would be the guide who would lead Union troops on a raid at Combahee Ferry. Later, she helped Union troops on an attack in South Carolina… and for her services she was paid nothing! I felt the documentary could have provided greater details about her involvement with the Union Army. After the war, she remained active in causes to improve the lives of former slaves. For a period, she even worked with Susan B. Anthony, on women’s suffrage issues. She died in 1913, at approximately the age of 90, still illiterate.
And the $20 bill? Unmentioned in the documentary. Apparently, the “regime change” in DC, in 2016, placed this project on hold. Tubman, Jackson, Bedford Forrest, Confederate statues, et al. concern events of at least 150 years ago. I’m all for reviewing history, and its revisions and re-revisions, but, particularly in this case, I would encourage EQUAL time be given to the slavery of today – the treatment of immigrant workers in meat packing plants et al., the disposability of workers in the “gig economy,” including the purveyors of this movie, and the human trafficking in massage parlors, and on and on. But don’t get me started…
4-stars for this documentary.