The Faith of Harriet Tubman


Colorado State University history professor Robert Gudmestad reflects on the Christian faith of Harriet Tubman. Here is a taste of his piece at “The Conversation”:

A horrific accident is believed to have brought Tubman closer to God and reinforced her Christian worldview. Sarah Bradford, a 19th-century writer who conducted interviews with Tubman and several of her associates, found the deep role faith played in her life.

When she was a teenager, Tubman happened to be at a dry goods store when an overseer was trying to capture an enslaved person who had left his slave labor camp without permission. The angry man threw a two-pound weight at the runaway but hit Tubman instead, crushing part of her skull. For two days she lingered between life and death.

The injury almost certainly gave her temporal lobe epilepsy. As a result, she would have splitting headaches, fall asleep without notice, even during conversations, and have dreamlike trances.

As Bradford documents, Tubman believed that her trances and visions were God’s revelation and evidence of his direct involvement in her life. One abolitionist told Bradford that Tubman “talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life.”

According to Larson, this confidence in providential guidance and protection helped make Tubman fearless. Standing only five feet tall, she had an air of authority that demanded respect.

Once Tubman told Bradford that when she was leading two “stout” men to freedom, she believed that “God told her to stop” and leave the road. She led the scared and reluctant men through an icy stream – and to freedom.

Harriet Tubman once said that slavery was “the next thing to hell.” She helped many transcend that hell.

Read the entire piece here.

Five Acts of Kindness in History that Give Me Hope


Harriet Tubman

Hope seems like it is hard to come by these days.  But these five events, chronicled by the BBC, give us a little glimpse of what the coming Kingdom of God–a Christian’s ultimate hope–might look like.


  1. A letter saves Jane Austen’s life
  2. Miep Gies and associates hide Anne Frank’s family from Nazi persecution, 1942-1944
  3. Elizabeth Fry visits Newgate Gaol, 1813
  4. Harriet Tubman rescues at least 300 people from slavery, c1850-1861
  5. Luz Long advises Jesse Owens on his run-up, 1936

The BBC “History Extra” unpacks these five stories here.

The African American Women of the Underground Railroad


Harriet Tubman, the subject of a movie now showing throughout the country, was just one of many African American women who labored on the Underground Railroad.  Over at Process, historian Jazma Sutton explains:

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.

Read the rest here.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson Goes Up in the White House


Barack Obama’s Treasury Department took Andrew Jackson off the twenty dollar bill and replaced him with Harriett Tubman.  Today Donald Trump hung Andrew Jackson’s portrait in the White House.

Here is a taste of a piece at The Hill:

President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office on Tuesday, The New York Times reports, an apparent nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.

Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.

Trump has also expressed admiration for the seventh president, as well, calling Jackson “an amazing figure in American history — very unique so many ways,” through a spokesperson last week.

Read the entire piece here.

Here are a few of my previous pieces on the Trump-Jackson comparison:

Op-ed from March 2016 in Harrisburg Patriot-News:  How Thomas Jefferson Predicted Donald Trump.

Blog post: Trump, Jackson, Native Americans, and a Pipeline


A Tubman Biographer on the Historiographical Rise of Tubman

Tubman bookOver at History News Network, historian Catherine Clinton, author of Harriett Tubman: The Road to Freedom, talks about her multi-decade career as a historian of abolitionism, women’s history, and African-American history.

Here is a taste of her piece, “The Long Journey from the Age of Jackson to Harriet Tubman on the Twenty.”

When I proposed a trade biography of Harriet Tubman, I was taken aback when a senior scholar endorsed my idea but suggested that I needed to remind people that Harriet’s first language was Dutch (mixing her up with Sojourner Truth). When I told another mentor that I would be writing a biography of the most famous African American in the 19th century, he only guessed Tubman on the third try: coming up with Frederick Douglass first and then Toussiant L’Ouverture.  I only include these anecdotes to demonstrate that in 1998, I imagined incoming undergraduates (through their History Day competitions and Black History Month reading) were more familiar with Harriet Tubman’s achievements than most of their professors.

But by the time Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom appeared in 2004, scholars seemed ready to include Tubman within the framework of African American freedom struggles, to place her alongside feminist icons within women’s history. As I suggest in my biography, she had an adaptive historical persona: the Black Panthers celebrated her as a gun-toting comrade in arms, while contemporary survivors of domestic violence invoked her while establishing clandestine safe houses to protect women and children escaping abuse. Finally, the academy seemed ready to embrace her as a long, lost hero who had been there all along.

When the Women on the $20s campaign emerged in the spring of 2015, and then the Treasury launched its “New Ten” campaign, I pronounced Tubman a fine candidate, weighing in like many other scholars: Over the summer of 2015, when the “Save Hamilton” campaign was launched, I was grateful to be invited to the Smithsonian for a roundtable with Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew and Treasurer Rosie Rios. I took the opportunity to provide both of them with a copy of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.

I also suggested—during our lively debates—that a woman of color must be the first female honored on any redesigned currency. I was not alone in this conviction nor the only one who advocated Tubman as the best woman to fill the bill.  In my forthcoming book, Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the Civil War, I argue that dismantling the Mammy is a necessary step for including African American women, particularly women like Harriet Tubman, within the proper context of U.S. freedom struggles.

Read the entire piece here.

It’s Official: Harriet Tubman Will Replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 Bill


And Alexander Hamilton will stay on the $10 bill.

Here is a taste of an article from The New York Times:

The Treasury Department will announce on Wednesday afternoon that Harriet Tubman, an African-American who ferried thousands of slaves to freedom, will replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 note, according to a Treasury official, while the newly popular Alexander Hamilton will remain on the face of the $10 bill.

Other depictions of women and civil rights leaders will also be part of new currency designs.

The redesigns, from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, would be announced in 2020 in time for the centennial of woman’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. None of the bills, including a new $5 note, would reach circulation until the next decade.

It was unclear whether details of the unexpectedly sweeping changes would mollify some women’s groups, who had excoriated Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew for reneging on his 10-month-old commitment to put a woman on the face of the $10 bill, which is the one currently in line for an anti-counterfeiting makeover.

But in the months of taking public comments on what woman he should pick, Mr. Lew evidently bowed to the Broadway-stoked mania around the $10 bill’s current star, Alexander Hamilton.

Whatever you think about Hamilton staying on the $10 bill, it is worth reiterating that he remains there because of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical theater adaptation of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Tubman has made it onto the $20 bill because historians of the enslaved, of abolitionism, and of American women have told her story.

This is public history at its best.  It shows the power of history to shape public debate. Now let’s think about other ways to present history responsibly so that it might lead to more significant changes in society.