Ghana Welcomes Tubman Family Members

Two great grand-nieces of Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman are heading to Ghana, where their ancestor will be honored with a festival, statue dedication and street re-naming in the capital.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Two descendants of Harriet Tubman are headed to Ghana today. Once there, they'll preside over ceremonies honoring the underground railroad heroine. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Tubman's 77-year-old great-grandniece, Pauline Copes Johnson, didn't find out until she was 25 years old that she was related to the woman she calls Aunt Harriet. Now she's excited to have the chance to visit Accra, Ghana, the place the family believes is Tubman's ancestral homeland.

Ms. PAULINE COPES JOHNSON (Tubman's Great Grand-niece): I think that Aunt Harriet deserves all the recognition she can get. She was a wonderful woman.

KEYES: Copes Johnson and her 73-year-old sister, Geraldine Copes Daniels, will be spending 10 days in Africa. Among other festivities, a statue of Tubman is being dedicated in the botanical gardens in Aburi and a street is being named after her. The sisters' host is Ghana's first female chief, Nana Osei Boakye Yiadom of Adabrobay village(ph). Copes Daniels says the trip will give the family a deeper insight into her famous relative.

Ms. GERALDINE COPES DANIELS (Tubman's Great Grand-niece): I'm looking forward to seeing the things that maybe Aunt Harriet doesn't know anything about. I don't believe that Aunt Harriet got the chance to go to Africa to see where her grandmother was born.

KEYES: The family believes that Tubman's maternal grandmother, Modesty, was stolen from Ghana and brought to this country. Copes Johnson is hoping to learn how her family lived there and also to find out if she still has living relatives in the vicinity.

Ms. JOHNSON: That's where we're going to find out where Aunt Harriet's grandmother, Modesty, lived, what her culture was, because Aunt Harriet was a part of the Ashanti tribe.

KEYES: Ancestral Promotions in Brooklyn and the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Jamaica, New York, are sponsoring the sisters' trip. Residents of Auburn, New York, where Tubman lived the last years of her life, contributed more than $1,000 toward their traveling expenses. Copes Johnson worked at the Harriet Tubman Home, guiding tourists around the historic site and telling them about Tubman's history. She hopes this trip helps silence naysayers who have questioned Tubman's legendary exploits.

Ms. JOHNSON: I certainly am very proud of her accomplishments. She had to have a lot of courage to do what she did, and people around here don't think that Aunt Harriet did all those things that she did, going back and forth and back and forth in her trips to the South and back to the North on the underground railroad.

KEYES: Tubman, born a slave in 1820 near Cambridge, Maryland, is best known for her use of that railroad. She once told Frederick Douglass that in all her journeys she never lost a single passenger. More than 100,000 slaves used a secret series of homes and hideouts to flee to freedom in the North. After escaping slavery herself, she made 19 trips to the South, freeing more than 300 slaves. Her dedication earned her the nickname Moses. During the Civil War, Tubman served the Union Army as a spy, scout and hospital nurse. In 1863, she became the first woman in US military history to lead a unit in combat. Pauline Copes Johnson says she wants people to know more about what her Aunt Harriet went through.

Ms. JOHNSON: And it was terrible in those days, and Aunt Harriet suffered a lot of abuse. And I'm here to tell them that I am a relative, a living relative, and I want them to know everything there is to know about Aunt Harriet.

KEYES: After the Civil War, Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, and started a home for elderly African-Americans. She died in 1913. Today, her home is still used for youth conferences and it's a cultural enrichment center. Geraldine Copes Daniels says she's very excited about the chance to learn new things about Tubman, and she thinks her great-grandaunt would be pleased that her relatives are journeying to her homeland.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

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