“I didn’t think all you Yankees would show up,” quipped Harriet Tubman as she entered from the rear of the easily recognizable red and white striped Chautauqua tent. Her sense of humor sparkled all night long as Harriet delighted the audience with stories of her leading slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Ilene Evans portrayed Harriet Tubman for this year’s Ohio Chautauqua presentation at Coshocton’s Bi-Centennial. She was a master storyteller and inspired young and old alike as she wove her story keeping the audience involved with rolling bandages and singing songs.
On the plantation where she was born in Maryland, birth records were not kept. Harriet was never certain about her birthdate. When she was about twelve, an overseer struck her in the head with a two pound weight when she attempted to defend a run away slave. This resulted in sleeping spells for the rest of her life where she drifted away for so long that she missed happenings in her surroundings. In her twenties, her escape from the plantation to the North began her lifelong quest for freedom of blacks from slavery.
Called “Moses” because she, too, led her people out of captivity, Harriet frequently burst into song. After singing “Battle Cry of Freedom” she explained that when fighting for freedom, “a song in your heart is the best weapon.”
During her time of freeing the slaves, Harriet served with the Union Army. There she took care of the injured soldiers, made and distributed bandages, and learned where the supplies were kept and where bridges were being mined. Often she said the injured men were covered with flies, so healing was a difficult proposition. The first United States Colored Troops during the Civil War did not receive any pay for eighteen months. So their wives had to support themselves and their children by doing laundry for the officers, making pies and cakes to be sold to the boys in camp, and brewing ginger beer.
Harriet had nine scouts and a riverboat captain in her command. But this bold, young lady in her twenties said, “She felt no fear as long as she was doing what God wanted.” She did however believe in a faith that required action and good deeds. She waved the 35 star flag proudly as she talked about her role in this fight for freedom.
After her performance, the tent was opened for questions from the audience to which she gave candid answers. Harriet felt that after the Civil War even though the Emancipation freed the slaves, they still had no rights. She had hoped that the war would not be just a vehicle of freedom, but a way to real equality.
She thought that President Lincoln moved way too slowly during the war years both in abolishing slavery and allowing blacks to fight as soldiers. Later wished she could have thanked him, at least for the end result.
The biggest disappointment in her life was an issue she didn’t really like to talk about because it hurt her so much. After the war was over, she returned to her husband, who was still living in the South in their family home, hoping he would go North with her. When he met her at the door, he had his new wife there with him in the cabin Harriet considered home.
One of the happy moments for Harriet that evening in Coshocton occurred when a third grader in the audience stood to ask her his second question of the evening: “Could I give you a hug?” He rushed down the aisle between the folded chairs and they hugged on stage while Harriet remarked, “This is the best present I could have.” The young boy’s mother later stated that the young man had been reading all day about Harriet Tubman before coming to the evening presentation.
Freedom is what this country, the United States of America, is all about. It was begun with freedom at its core, and the hopes and dreams of men and women still struggle to maintain that freedom today. God bless the USA!