Harriet Tubman Was 'Tough And Tender'

People are thinking of unique ways to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death. Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of the fitness group GirlTrek, is organizing a walk inspired by the abolitionist's steps. Also, Jacquelyn Serwer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture talks about Tubman's legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's Women's History Month and I have some thoughts about conditions for women in the U.S. compared with those of other nations. So, that's my weekly essay.

But, first, we want to take a few minutes to talk about one of this country's most famous women, Harriet Tubman. Born a slave, she famously escaped to freedom, but then went back South many times to free hundreds of other slaves through the Underground Railroad.

March 10th marks the 100th anniversary of her death, so we thought this would be a good time to take a new look at her life and legacy. The chief curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Jacqueline Serwer, is with us. Also with us is someone who's going to tell us about one of these interesting commemorative events to recognize Harriet Tubman's life and legacy. One of the co-founders GirlTrek, Vanessa Garrison, is with us. GirlTrek is a national organization for black women's health and fitness and is commemorating Harriet Tubman's life by hosting a national walking campaign in her honor.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

JACQUELYN SERWER: Thank you.

VANESSA GARRISON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Serwer, let me start with you and spend some time with you. Now, I'm sure that most people, if they've ever even picked up a Black History Month calendar, they've heard of Harriet Tubman. But what are some of the things you can tell us about her that perhaps people do not know? Like, where was born, for example?

SERWER: She was born on the eastern shore and actually her name was not even Harriet. It was Araminta - was her first name. And she suffered a physical disability that was due to having been hit in the head when she was 12 or 13, and so from that time on, she had moments when she lost consciousness.

But I think what people know about her is how strong she was and how brave she was and how many people she saved and so on, but there was also a wonderful, very feminine side to her that I think makes her a very full, fascinating character.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about the tough and the tender side of her. Let's talk about the tough side first. I understand that she was clearly understood to have been effective as a conductor on the Underground Railroad...

SERWER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to the point where there was a $40,000 bounty on her head. How did she escape detection all these years? Do we know?

SERWER: Well, she was very smart and had a wonderful memory and knew these byways and these secret routes like the back of her hand and so, when she rounded up a group of people whom she was going to lead to freedom, she knew exactly where to go, where to hide, when to wait, how to escape the slave hunters who were looking for her and looking for the folks that she was bringing to freedom. And she was just very clever. She was also very disciplined, so people, you know, who were tired or who wanted to do something different - she was very strong and could be very harsh at the same time that she was a very kind woman.

MARTIN: Well, why don't you just go right there? She apparently traveled with a gun and she famously would tell fugitives, if they tried to flake out on her, she would what?

SERWER: She would kill them. She couldn't risk all the others for the sake of - you know, of somebody who was going to fall by the wayside.

MARTIN: She said, you'll be free or you'll die.

SERWER: Yes. That sounds about right.

MARTIN: But she never did. She never actually had to use it, did she?

SERWER: Well, not so far as I know.

MARTIN: Not as far as we know. And, speaking of her feminine side, you know, the reason that she ran away to begin with - didn't that have something to do with her marriage, that she was afraid she'd be sold away from her husband, or could you tell us a little bit about that?

SERWER: Well, she did marry fairly early, but I think what she wanted more than anything was to be free and to free her family and so that was the focus of those early trips to freedom.

MARTIN: Vanessa Garrison, we talk about, you know, Harriet Tubman, obviously, the conductor on the Underground Railroad, this kind of famous figure from African-American history, really from America's history. Where did you get the idea for a day of walking in her honor? Tell us about that.

GARRISON: A moving tribute because GirlTrek believes that the obesity crisis that is currently impacting African-American women is going to require the same type of courage that Harriet Tubman displayed and we believe that, as women, we are going to have to also liberate, one, ourselves and then come back and be examples and liberate our family. And one of the things we say is that, if Harriet Tubman could walk herself to freedom, we can certainly walk ourselves to better health.

MARTIN: What exactly would you like people to do in honor of Harriet Tubman and the 100th anniversary of her death? Shame that we're commemorating her death, not her life, but nevertheless...

GARRISON: We actually - we're doing both. A lot of people actually don't know that March 10th is actually Harriet Tubman Day as designated by Congress and so this is an opportunity for us to annually pay homage to Harriet Tubman in a way that just is not just a tribute. It's not just a candlelight vigil; it's a way to use our bodies. And so GirlTrek is challenging women around the country - specifically black women and girls, but all people who stand behind this idea of health and how do we move forward - to walk at the exact same time, 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time, on Sunday, March 10, as a moving tribute to Harriet Tubman. Women are walking - we have over 13,000 women currently walking, 100 minutes to commemorate that centennial.

MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea of using Harriet Tubman's, the commemoration of her life as a way to kick that off? And it is kind of, I understand it's inspired. I mean to say, look, if she could walk to freedom, you can walk for your health. But how did you come up with this idea? Was it a eureka moment?

GARRISON: It was, because in a conversation with GirlTrek co-founder Tanya Morgan Dixon, we were talking about this health crisis. We were talking about what the implications were for own lives and for our family, this kind of epidemic of disease and inactivity. And we literally challenged ourselves and said, Harriet Tubman wouldn't even recognize us now and this is a crisis within our communities and we need to look to our past. Beyond the inspiration of weight loss and waist size and diet, what are going to be the things that galvanize us as a culture? What are going to be the things that creates a critical mass of movement that really pushes black women forward to want to be inspired to walk for better health? And then we thought who better than Harriet Tubman for us? She's been such a personal inspiration. Who else? And it's worked. Women are inspired by her story. A lot of people don't know but Harriet Tubman was a small woman in stature and yet she has had such an impact on how we live our lives today.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Vanessa Garrison. She's co-founder of GirlTrek. She and her organization are asking particularly African-American women, but anybody in this country, to walk for 100 minutes on March 10 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death. It's Harriet Tubman Day, as designated by Congress. Also with us, Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Jacqueline, you heard of Vanessa and her group's efforts to kind of revive and refresh the memory of Harriet Tubman.

SERWER: Yes.

MARTIN: What are some of the other things - and it occurs to me that that's in part what the National Museum of the African American History and Culture is also about, is trying to revive and refresh our understandings of these important figures, give them new life and give people new understanding of them.

SERWER: Yes. Indeed.

MARTIN: What are some of the other things that you can tell us about Harriet Tubman? And I understand that the museum has also acquired a very special item, a personal item of Harriet Tubman.

SERWER: Well, actually, a number of personal items of Harriet Tubman that were given to us by a collector in Philadelphia, Charles Blockson, well known as a collector of African-American materials. And he gave us a shawl that was given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee. And we have collars. We have handkerchiefs. We have cutlery. So we have things that she actually touched and used, and so I think that will be very meaningful.

MARTIN: Can you talk about when the museum knew that they were acquiring Harriet Tubman's shawl? What was that like? Do you member when you first saw it?

SERWER: Well, we knew that there were some personal items and we went to Philadelphia to meet with Mr. Blockson. And he opened up this box and began to take out these pieces and, you know, we just all sort of burst into tears. I mean it was just, there was something so visceral about seeing things and touching things that she had touched and she had worn.

But speaking of fitness, I should say that she was known to be very strong and powerful. But there are wonderful pictures of her, you know, in a dress with a very tiny waist and looking very feminine indeed. And also she had, her first marriage to Mr. Tubman was not a success but later on, after the Civil War in the 1860s, she remarried a gentleman named Nelson Davis and he was 20 years her junior. But when you see the pictures of him and you see the pictures of her and you see them together, they were, you know, a wonderful match. And I think, you know, any woman who can marry a man 20 years her junior and feel that she is his match is somebody who was clearly physically fit in many ways and so even more a model for your new endeavor with GirlTrek.

MARTIN: To that end, her trips - I think for people who may forget - that her trips to the South to escort fugitive, enslaved Americans took place over a 10-year period. How many trips were there overall? I think maybe people think she did this once or twice. How many were there overall?

SERWER: She did many, many trips over that period.

MARTIN: The figure I've heard is the 19 over a 10-year period. Does that sound right?

SERWER: I think maybe - perhaps it was even more than that, but it was a great number of people she managed to - dozens, if not hundreds. And there were also other incidents. When she was working with the Union Army in South Carolina and at one point she leads a raid with General Montgomery, and they free hundreds of people on the raid and she actually, you know, there she was paired with a general and leading this raid herself. And people say that she's the only woman known to have led that kind of military expedition, especially one that was so successful.

MARTIN: How would you like people to think of Harriet Tubman, Jacquelyn Serwer?

SERWER: Well, I'd like people to think of her as really complex and multifaceted and as a person who was very able and very strong and very determined, but also as somebody who was lovely and soft and spent most of her life - certainly after the Civil War - looking after her family and elderly people, people, indigent African-Americans who, you know, had no way to support themselves after the war. And also she went on to be very involved in the suffrage movement as well. So she really had a very broad view of justice and what was important and what people needed to endeavor to do. And so she was involved in all kinds of good things that supported other people.

MARTIN: I know that the place of her birth, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is commemorating her in a very big way with a campaign called, you know, Born A Slave. She was born a slave, she died a hero. Which I think is rather...

SERWER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...you know, remarkable, that a place that held her in bondage now is able to celebrate her...

SERWER: Indeed. Yes.

MARTIN: ...and her accomplishment.

Vanessa, final word from you. What do you want people to think of when they think of Harriet Tubman, especially when they're strapping on their shoes this weekend?

GARRISON: Absolutely. As we all are strapping on our shoes. I'd love for people to think of her as the great liberator. And to emphasize not just that she was an escape slave, but then she went back. And this is kind of a lesson for our own lives in terms of freeing ourselves and finding health and wellness in our own lives and then leading the way for other people to find that same health and wellness. It's a really great example. It's a great example for our country, just around what family means, what freedom means, what love means. She is a real great hero for this country. And it's not just black history, it's really American history, Women's History Month - this is like the perfect time to really think about context across all different areas.

MARTIN: Vanessa Garrison is co-founder of GirlTrek. Her organization is asking people to walk for 100 minutes this weekend, March 10 at 4:30 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death. Also with us, Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. They were both kind enough to stop by - I think they walked - to our Washington, D.C. studios.

GARRISON: I did walk.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Thank you both so much for joining us.

SERWER: Thank you.

GARRISON: Think you.

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