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Beyond Harriet

The Underground Railroad. By Charles T. Webber, circa 1893. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.[1]

Most histories or legends of the Underground Railroad emphasize the abolitionist efforts of white men. Rarely do they reference the efforts of women or blacks. This omission is partially because pioneering Underground Railroad scholars such as Wilbur H. Siebert relied chiefly on the recollections of white men. Their sentiments are reflected in the words of Levi Coffin, the white abolitionist Quaker who styled himself, “President of the Underground Railroad.” Describing African American participation in the Underground Railroad, Coffin derisively asserted, “There were a few careful managers, but only a few.… The majority could not be trusted; they lacked shrewdness and caution and could sometimes be bribed to act as spies, or betray the hiding places of the fugitives.”[2]

Contrary to Coffin’s claims, African American women planned and executed the most dangerous elements of their escape. Deciding whom to trust required intelligence and astuteness on the part of these self-liberated women, for they were well aware that some people, white and black, men and women, worked as slave capturers. Moreover, everyone involved knew that white men posed some of the greatest threats to African American women. This potential danger is suggested in the recollection of Nathan Coggeshall, a Quaker in Grant County, Indiana, who expressed that, “as a young, unmarried man he had often shared a bed with a fugitive slave his family was sheltering.” There is no evidence to show that Coggeshall made sexual advances toward self-liberated women then, but we do know that such behavior by white men was common. Therefore, when women did seek assistance, their first thought was to consult free African Americans along the way.[3]

African American women transformed homes, schools, and churches into arenas for politicization through their participation in the Underground Railroad. Within these informal spaces, they offered shelter, prepared food, tended to the sick, sewed and provided clothing, and raised money for the cause. Women in different regions harnessed their domestic and political skills in distinctive ways. Rural women gathered regularly in sewing circles for the purpose of making clothing for runaways. Because of the large presence of Quakers in rural Indiana, assistants often disguised self-liberated women in the plain, gray attire and bonnets of Quaker women.  It was also common to see African American women cloaked in men’s clothing or attempting to pass as white women.  Elsewhere, women expressed their anti-slavery politics through their organizational efforts and financial investments. Mary Ann Shadd solicited aid for runaways in her newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, the first ever newspaper edited by an African American woman, and in lectures throughout Canada. Shadd also rebuked abolitionist Henry Bibb for misusing funds he had collected for and from runaways. Members of the New York Ladies Literary Society used the black church to raise money. Two market women in Baltimore served as agents for the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, a secret group of anti-slavery advocates dedicated to providing aid and protection for self-liberated black persons. Throughout the Northeast, African American washerwomen and domestic service workers contributed, donating in some instances as little as a single penny, to the cause. Internationally, women organized fundraising events such as charity fairs or bazaars where they sold goods produced by their own labors and donated the proceeds to abolitionist and local vigilance committees.[4]

Space, mobility, and geography were central to African American women’s conception of freedom. They traversed what scholar Cheryl Janifer LaRoche calls the “geography of resistance”—a pathway to freedom “thoroughly identified with routes and landscape, terrain, landforms and natural shelters, as well as settlements and houses.” This geography consisted of: farms, swamps, canals, mountains, caves, hills, valleys, waterways, cornfields, and barns. It also included black religious and educational institutions. Like Harriet Tubman, some African American women ventured into spaces of unfreedom, at great personal risk, to conduct enslaved persons to freedom. A Cincinnati woman known as Mrs. Annis rowed a skiff to Kentucky to make the arrangements of an escape and, to her surprise, came face to face with an enslaver. She evaded capture by retreating to the water, but still managed to communicate her plans to the enslaved persons she intended to liberate. An elderly African American woman in present-day West Virginia also assisted enslaved people across the Ohio River. Unfortunately, this woman and innumerable others remain nameless and faceless foot soldiers in the movement due to a lack of source material written by black women during this period.[5]

When necessary, African American women deployed violence and armed resistance as a strategy in their quest for freedom. They did so fully aware that they faced the risks of re-enslavement, corporal punishment, and death.  Two young sisters, Susan and Margaret Wilkerson, escaped from Jefferson County, Tennessee, supposedly with money their grandmother, Milly Wilkerson, had helped to collect. After they fled to her house in Randolph County, Indiana, Mrs. Wilkerson, “with fierce and deadly earnestness,” armed herself with a corn knife and threatened to cut down any man who dared to enter in pursuit. In the meantime, she instructed her grandson to ride through the settlement on horseback sounding a horn to signal the presence of slave catchers. Knowing well that chances of successful escape significantly improved when communities banded together for self-defense, friends and neighbors came quickly to the Wilersons’ aid. As Ebenezer Tucker, principal of the ULI remembered, “the colored people came pouring in from every direction, armed with clubs, hoes, axes, and whatever they could lay their hands on.” Though Mrs. Wilkerson managed to stave off the recapture of her granddaughters, in 1839, the girls’ enslaver brought suit against Mrs. Wilkerson and others for “unlawfully, knowingly, forcibly, and willfully concealing and harboring a fugitive.” The county court eventually dropped the charges. But as a free black woman, Mrs. Wilkerson’s position remained precarious, and so too did her granddaughters’ freedom.[6]

The labor performed by African American women on the Underground Railroad was not for the faint of heart. As historian Amrita Chakrabarti Myers explains it, “freedom was not fixed, it was an experience.” When individuals had to make the agonizing decision to leave loved ones behind in enslavement, the lived experiences of freedom did not come with a cinematic happy ending. It is not surprising, then, that Harriet Tubman declined an invitation to attend a showing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Philadelphia, stressing, “I haint got no heart to go and see the sufferings of my people played out on de stage. I’ve seen de real ting, and I don’t want to see it on no stage or in no teater.”[7]

African American women, arguably the most vulnerable group in antebellum America, used every means at their disposal to escape slavery, liberate family members, assist in others’ self-liberation, and hold on to whatever measure of freedom they had achieved. Through their everyday acts of resistance, they played a significant role in waging the slave’s war and forging political and social change. However, black women’s voices and actions have been almost completely erased in Underground Railroad scholarship, media accounts, archives, and historic sites. We must ask, does a movie like Harriet obscure more than it reveals the accomplishments of black women who contributed to the Underground Railroad? In our glorification of Harriet Tubman have we left little room in our imagination for the collective sacrifices of ordinary, yet resilient, African American women? As we revel in the release of the film Harriet this week, we must also remember to look beyond her.

Jazma Sutton is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Bloomington and an editorial assistant at the Journal of American History. Her dissertation explores the origins and development of Indiana’s rural free black communities, the gendered experiences of freedom, and free and self-liberated black women’s roles in the Underground Railroad.

[1] Ebenezer Tucker, History of Randolph County, Indiana with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers: to Which Are Appended Maps of its Several Townships (Chicago, 1882), 197.

[2] Levi Coffin, The Reminisces of Levi Coffin the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents (Cincinnati, 1880), 66.

[3] Thomas Hamm, et al., “’A Great and Good People’: Midwestern Quakers and the Struggle Against Slavery,” Indiana Magazine of History, 100 (March 2004), 22.

[4] Coffin, Reminisces of Levi Coffin, 648; Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (New York, 2005), 386; Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of America’s Fugitive Slaves (Oxford, 2015), 65 and 183; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1898), 91; James Oliver Horton, “Freedom’s Yoke: Gender Conventions Among Antebellum Free Blacks,” in Patrick Rael, African-American Activism Before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (New York, 2008), 168-187, esp. 177.

[5] Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (Urbana, 2014), 2; Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington, 2004), 95.

[6] Tucker, History of Randolph County, 195, 197–98.

[7]Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (Chapel Hill, 2011), 3. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 373.