On September 30, Rochester DSA joined our comrades from Syracuse DSA for a tour of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York. The trip was an exciting opportunity to connect with a neighboring chapter as we spread our roots. As important, we walked away with a deep appreciation for our region’s legacy, and the importance of keeping this legacy alive to understand and address the deep rifts our society continues to face today.
The site manager, Reverend Paul Gordon Carter, does admirable work in this regard. Carter guaranteed that each of the visitors would learn something new; an entirely justified prediction.
Strikingly, Carter did not shy away from the horrors of slavery. Providing the historical context of Harriet Tubman’s life, he passionately described how free peoples were uprooted from their homeland, placed in shackles, and enslaved for their labor—many dying on the journey. Throughout, Carter made a point of avoiding the words “slave” and “slavemaster,” emphasizing that these were enslaved peoples, held by force for the material benefit of their enslaver. Slavery is not a natural condition, but an exploitative social structure designed for the maintenance of the enslaver’s power.
Tubman herself experienced whipping on numerous occasions, two of which were recounted by Carter in detail. She bore scars on her neck and back for the remainder of her life.
Carter passed around a two-pound metal weight while speaking, before revealing that Tubman was struck in the head by such a weight, aimed at a nearby man attempting to flee from captivity. Lacking proper medical attention and time for recovery, she was forced to return to work with blood from the wound still pouring over her eyes. She experienced bouts of epilepsy thereafter.
As Du Bois recounts in Black Reconstruction, enslaved peoples did not submit passively to their condition but found ways to overcome it. Tubman escaped her enslavers in 1849, but famously returned to the South on numerous occasions with the aim of freeing members of her family. Overall, she rescued approximately seventy people, while advising many more on means of escape.
During the Civil War she served as a nurse and Union spy, becoming the first woman to lead an armed raid in U.S. military history. This withdrawal of labor from the enslaver through flight, and bestowal of labor on the Union, says Du Bois, “decided the war.”
Tubman’s service did not protect her from ongoing racial oppression. Riding the train home to Auburn on a half-fare nurse’s pass, she was violently ejected from her seat and thrown into the baggage car. Not until 1899 did Tubman receive a pension for her service.
Following his presentation, Carter described his passion for telling this story. The Harriet Tubman Home is managed by the National Parks Service in partnership with the historic African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Through this arrangement, says Carter, it remains “our story.” Otherwise, Carter suggests, it becomes “his-story, and we can see what they’re trying to do to that,” alluding to reactionary efforts to rewrite classroom curriculums.
Tubman’s immense accomplishments were not done alone. Throughout Carter’s presentation, the importance of organizing was apparent. Tubman’s safe passage was supported by abolitionists along the Underground Railroad, including here in Rochester. At the same time, Tubman’s legacy shows the impact one dedicated person can make. Finally, nothing demonstrates more starkly the potential for change than the emancipation of billions of dollars in uncompensated human capital from enslavers during the Civil War. By drawing on this legacy, remembering these stories, and putting their lessons into action, we will fight against the return of such horrors to build a better tomorrow.