The Lasting Legacy of Harriet Tubman

Essayist S. Pearl Sharp pays a visit to the gravesite of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Sharp says that even in death Tubman still has the power to inspire.

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ED GORDON, host:

When Harriet Tubman led runaway slaves to freedom, it said that she often did so with force and a harsh tone. Essayist S. Pearl Sharp discovered that Tubman still has the power to lead and inspire.

Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Essayist): Recently, I was in Syracuse, New York, breaking bread with the novelist, Arthur Flowers. He shared tales of his sometimes humorous visits, tending the grave of John Oliver Killens. We had both studied under Killens, the esteemed novelist and professor back in the '70s, and his imprint is on our writing even today.

Then Arthur surprised me by asking if I might like to visit Harriet Tubman's gravesite. Now, in truth, I'm not the kind of tourist who enjoys looking at dead buildings and famous folks' graves. I'm the one who cuts out of organized tours to follow the scent of native food, to find out if there's a local theatre, and where do folks around here go dancing.

But Tubman is an icon of the struggle to abolish slavery, a heroine whose name is evoked in many movements. So I accepted the invitation to visit Sister Harriet. The next morning we headed down the highway in big, falling snow toward Auburn, New York, 40 miles away. Arthur kicked in his favorite music, Randy Crawford, to set the tone for the day.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RANDY CRAWFORD: (Singing) The big wheel keeps on turning on a simple line day by day. The earth spins on its axis. One man struggles, while another relaxes.

Ms. SHARP: After escaping from slavery in 1849, Tubman earned the nickname Moses of her people, by leading more than 300 slaves to freedom, then serving as a highly valued spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, she settled in Auburn, owned property, and established a home for aging and indigent colored folks.

She died 50 years after emancipation, and was buried here in the Fort Hills Cemetery. It's small cemetery tucked into a middle class neighborhood. Her headstone is large and plain. Only her name is inscribed on it, no dates, no tribute. Someone has stuck a red, black and green flag in front of it, the symbol of the Black Nationalist movement. And there is a cement urn to hold plants or other gifts to the shrine.

There are also two federal symbols, a bronze circle about the size of a saucer on a stick that designates Tubman as a veteran.

Unidentified Woman: I didn't accept it to say Harriet Tubman Davis. What's the Davis?

Mr. ARTHUR FLOWERS (Novelist): [unintelligible] husband.

Ms. SHARP: Davis, I learned, was Tubman's second husband. He was also a civil war veteran.

Mr. FLOWERS: That, in fact, was the only she could get a pension.

Ms. SHARP: Arthur Flowers reminded me that after all of her work with the Union Army as a nurse, cook, and spy, Harriet had been denied her veterans benefits for 30 years. My mind shifted into stillness as I stood in the snow before his shrine. Tears started to well up, but I caught them all.

Ms. SHARP: I'm fine.

Ms. SHARP: Why would I cry here? Maybe because standing in front of her marker made her real at last, as if I could feel a little of her spirit tapping me on the shoulder asking, are you ready to be free?

Mr. FLOWERS: I really like that tree--it's always green, it's always big.

Ms. SHARP: I stepped back to see what Arthur is seeing. I had been so absorbed in the immediacy of the gravesite that I had not taken in the most beautiful part. A huge, gorgeous pine tree hovers over Harriet, and it seems to know it is a sacred sentinel.

And suddenly, I am feeling this joy just at being here. What is this joy? Where is it coming from? It's like Harriet had just whispered in my ear and said, I'm doing okay, girl. Now, get back to work. But enjoy it. Enjoy it.

Ms. SHARP: I'm just so honored, thank you.

Mr. FLOWERS: Um-hmm.

Ms. SHARP: It's one thing to read the books, read the history and all of that; it's another thing to--I guess it's like it makes it more real. That may sound kind of silly, but it makes her life more real. Let me take a picture.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CRAWFORD: (Singing) But the ghetto saw where nature lies [unintelligible] some time again.

Ms. SHARP: Then we drove a short distance to Tubman's home. Here I learned not about the hero, the icon, but about the woman, a woman courted by her second husband, and who liked to plant raspberries and flowers in her yard.

Ms. CHRISTINE P. CARTER (Tour Guide): When Harriet Tubman first came to Auburn, it was said to have been around 1857, 1859...

Ms. SHARP: Our tour guide is Christine P. Carter. Christine feels that running tours here is such an honor that she did it voluntarily for 10 years before she and her husband were hired as official caretakers.

Ms. CARTER: ...seven-acre property next door.

Ms. SHARP: When I told her how visiting the gravesite made me feel, she gave me the 4-1-1 on the tree.

Ms. CARTER: The information that I received that it was two trees that was planted there as first a headstone of Harriet Tubman from the family, and to look at it, and from the trunk of it, how they grew together. And then as you look further up toward the top of the tree, how they section off. And I said, that's just like Harriet to have her family split off from the beginning and at the end come together.

She went off, got freedom herself; went back, made sure her family enjoyed the same type of freedom that she had acquired; and together...

Ms. CARTER: Yeah, I don't know what happened back there, but my spirit is expanded, brightened. Harriet made all those trips back south, successfully rescuing other slaves without cash or AAA or email, no committee meetings, no post-traumatic syndrome counseling, no support groups.

She coupled her wit, her intelligence and her intuition with guide posts from mother nature. And here in this moment, she seems to be still leading some of us to freedom. I had come to her grave with no expectations and had been deeply touched, rediscovering that history is even in death a living thing.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a documentary filmmaker and actor living in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. Crawford (Singing): When I lose my way I know just what to do. When I can't seem to think what to say I come running right to you. You are...

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us.

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