Carrie M. Best/A Digital Archive


By Carrie Best
From That Lonesome Road
It is not possible to write even a severely edited narrative on the life and times of Harriet Tubman without some knowledge of the Underground Railroad for the two are synonymous in Black History.

The Underground Railroad, so called, was a unique line.

Its stock was never sold on the open market. Its "trains" - mostly farm wagons and its passengers travelled only by night guided by the North Star. Its board of directors was a Vigilance Committee of black and white members who met always in secret to transact its business. All stock holders were outsiders for the right hand was never to know what the left hand was doing. Stock did not receive or expect any dividends. They were received however by means of a most ingenious system of communication - the Negro Spiritual, the Morse Code by which the "trains" of the Underground Railroad was dispatched. A "passenger" had successfully reached his destination after fleeing from bondage and the Slave Song . . - "I wonder where my mother has gone", is replaced by "Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells, I Heard from Heaven Today". Heaven was Canada, and the church bells pealed forth the message that the Underground Railroad had safely dislodged another fugitive.

Harriet Tubman was the greatest "Conductor". Having escaped from slavery she returned again and again to lead over 300 of her people to freedom. She has been called a second Joan of Arc.

Unlike freedom fighter Sojourner Truth, whose physical strength was comparable to that of many men, Harriet Tubman was a frail and physically handicapped woman, who although she lived to be ninety-three years of age suffered recurring black-outs all her life as the result of a blow to the head inflicted by a slave owner when she was fifteen years old.

Her incredible story is a revelation in this International Women's Year (1975) when it is considered that a reward of $40,000 was offered for her dead or alive and was never paid.

R. C. Smedley in his History of the Underground Railroad wrote of the Modus operandi of this strange transportation system: To carry passengers successfully over the great lines and branches of this road from its beginning to its terminus; to prevent capture and to escape arrest and the mulcting punishments attached to the slave laws. It required men and women of firmness, courage, sagacity -- coolness and intrepidity in time of danger. In the early part of this concerted "management", slaves were hunted and tracked as far as British Columbia. There the pursuers lost all trace of them. The most scrutinizing inquiries, the most vigorous search failed to educe any knowledge of them. Their pursuers seemed to have reached an abyss, beyond which they could not see and in their bewilderment and discomfiture they declared that there must be an underground railroad somewhere. This gave origin to the term which this secret passage from bondage to freedom was ever after designated.

The most authentic and comprehensive history of the Underground Railroad is that written by William Still.

Mr. Still's position as corresponding Secretary and chairman of its active subcommittee gave him peculiar facilities for collecting interesting facts pertaining to this branch of the anti-slavery service.

Because of this, he was commissioned to compile and publish his personal reminiscences and experiences relating to the Underground Railroad. As a Black man his account is a "body and soul" approach as compared to records of well meaning but often dramatized versions of white historians.

A preface by the author is in itself prophetic history: "Those who come after us seeking for information in regard to the existence, atrocities, struggles and destruction of slavery will have no trouble in finding this hydra headed monster ruling and terrorizing over Church and State, North and South, White and Black, without let or hindrance for at least several generations.

Nor will posterity have any difficulty in finding the deeds of the brave and invincible oppressors of slavery who in the words of William Lloyd Garrison declared without compromise:

"I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard."

When centuries later one studies the "operations" of the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Laws, The infamous Gag Law, the absolute necessity for Slave Labor in the process of making Cotton King, one finds it difficult to conceive the almost superhuman ability of the Black race to survive. A study of the role of the Black Women in the battle for survival is the history of an indomitable spirit unequalled in history. A beast of burden, a breeding sow, created (in the opinion of the slave owner) for one purpose only, to breed for him from puberty until death the slaves required to build an empire.

The lives of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth Phyllis Wheatly and other Minority Women are all the more remarkable when one considers that they lived, survived and achieved under such legislated discrimination and one cannot do less than pay tribute to their memory during this International Women's Year when the Visible Minority Women from coast to coast will meet in Toronto in October (1975).

The life and works of Harriet Tubman are the more remarkable when it is considered that she lived amid legislated discrimination - The Fugitive Slave Law and the equally infamous Gag Law.

The Gag Law

In 1835 and 1836, the legislatures of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia passed resolutions declaring that each state in which slavery was established had the right to manage the matter in the way its inhabitants saw fit; and that the citizens of other states who were interfering in any way, directly or indirectly, were guilty of violating their social and constitutional obligation, and ought to be punished.

They therefore claimed and earnestly requested that the non-slave holding states of the Union should promptly and effectively suppress all abolition societies; and that they should make it highly penal to print, publish and distribute newspapers, pamphlets, tracts and pictorial representations calculated to excite the slaves of the Southern states in insurrection or revolt. The United States Supreme Court agreed.

The Abolitionists

The Abolitionists opponents of slavery were numbered in the thousands many of them distinguished and prominent white citizens in the cities of the North, others were free Blacks of means or stature, and those of no stature other than their love of freedom and their belief that it was the inherent right of every human being to possess it.
The reaction to the Gag Law was swift and decisive.

. . . And Whereas

At a meeting in Israel Church on April 3, 1857 the Abolitionists reacted to the Gag Law by issuing the following resolution:

Whereas the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that people of African descent are not, and cannot be citizens of the United States, and cannot sue in any of the United States Courts and - Whereas the Supreme Court is the constitutionally approved body etc., etc., etc.,

Whereas the court in rendering this decision has declared that "this unfortunate class have with the civilized and enlightened portion of the world for more than a century, been regarded as being of an inferior order, and unfit associates for the white race, either socially or politically having no rights which white men are bound to respect and - etc., etc., etc.

The opponents of slavery felt this infamous legislation to be incompatible with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which had inspired them in their long and arduous struggle for liberty - that they were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

They further held it to be inconsistent with the principles of free government they were about to establish to hold any class of people in a bondage more oppressive and more degrading and tyrannical than that from which they had just emancipated themselves through the trials of a war that lasted seven years.

Fugitive Slave Law

Briefly the abominable Fugitive Slave Law reads: The claimant of any person who had escaped or should escape from slavery in any State or Territory, might apply to any Court of Record or judge thereof, describe the fugitive and make satisfactory proof that he or she owed service or labor to said claimant. Thereupon the court, or in vacation, the judge, was required to cause a record to be made of the description of the alleged fugitive, as full and conclusive evidence that the person claimed and so described was a fugitive from slavery and owed service to the claimant and therefore should be delivered up.

Any marshal or deputy who should refuse to arrest such a fugitive was to be fined one thousand dollars, and any person who should in any way prevent the claimant, his agents or assistants from getting possession of the fugitive by hiding him or helping him to escape would be fined one thousand dollars for (quote) "violating this righteous law", and to be fined another one thousand dollars to the claimant of the fugitive.

This atrocious enactment provided further that while the claimant or agent might give testimony or make affidavit to the enslavement of the arrested one, in no trail or hearing under the Act was the testimony of the alleged fugitive to be admitted in evidence.

This was the system of enslavement under which Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman lived, challenged and finally defeated.

© 1977 Clarion Publishing