Few times in my life have I stood before a person or their memory, and been so overwhelmed by the decency of their character, and the courage of their soul. Having walked across much of south, depending upon the kindness of perfect strangers, it has become inescapable and could not be any more glaringly obvious to me, that Mrs. Tubman was a remarkable human being.

After standing up for another slave who was being punished, she received the brunt of a 5 lbs. weight striking her head. That blow left her with frequent blackouts for the rest of her life, and the determination to be free. She ran away from her plantation in Maryland, and made it to freedom in Pennsylvania, a free state.

Although she didn’t start the underground railroad, she certainly was the most successful and committed of it’s conductors. She returned from the north 19 times and helped 700 slaves reach freedom. During the Civil War, she served as a scout, often working as a spy entering the enclave of the southerners, and led men on raids. She taught those that she freed by learning to celestially navigate, reading the land, and using codes, misdirection, and ingenuity to guide themselves from harms way.

Of the nearly 100,000,000 people the came to the new world by way of slave trade, 9 out of 10 survived the ordeal of the middle passage. Often resorting to acts of suicide by jumping overboard, or merely by succumbing to the inhuman treatment. If one chose to survive, it was often at a price…a dear one. The reason I bring up the middle passage is because in many ways, Harriet Tubman and the others like her, chose to go back into the south, and made the return trip, or middle passage, over and over and over again.

“Stations” along the way warned passing conductors of the perils of the journey. Certain quilts put out over a washing line served as flags, their pattern signaling to change clothes or safe passage, food or accommodation available, or walk south. The last one seems odd, but bounty hunters rarely questioned blacks walking south…only those headed north. Often the field workers would sing songs to signal as well. “Wading by the Water”, meant, “loose your scent in the river, the dogs are after you.”

Harriet always carried a gun with her. Food was scarce, and shooting a raccoon or other food was sometimes warranted. In addition, there could be no desertion. The railroaders had to endure snakes, alligators, spiders, ticks, chiggers, as well as swamps, stickers, thorns, and underbrush that barred them from freedom. Some would have second thoughts about returning…this is the second reason that Mrs. Tubman carried a gun. In all her time, she never had to use it, and she never lost a “car off the track”.

Often their feet were bloodied and bruised along the trail, as many did not possess shoes. At stations, the people would give them new clothes, bandaged their feet, or anything else that would help. Having run through the south during summer in shoes, on roads, and sleeping “safely”, I can only imagine what perils they encountered. People often comment to me, “be careful out there, there are bad people out there.” Compared to having dogs, slavers, dehydration, starvation, bare feet, and all that they had to deal with…my journey seems a walk in the park.

As if it wasn’t enough that she did all this for her fellow man, she also acquired 32 acres and a home, and used the land and home for caring for the old and dying. When she died at the age of 99, cared for in the same home  that so many had been cared for by her own hand, she uttered her last words. “I go now to prepare a place for you,” and she died.

Compared to her sacrifices, her accomplishments, and her devotion to her fellow man…my and our accomplishments, complaints, and frustrations seem so petty? And yet, all of us have within our power, the ability to be just like her, every moment we choose to care. The moment we decide the status quo is not acceptable, the moment we decide, “I must do something about it.”

Before the Civil War it was estimated that there were 4,000,000 slaves, less than 1/50th of one percent made their way through the railroad to safety. After tasting freedom, how many turned around and went back south? Zero.

Mrs. Tubman…you were considered the least among us, but your life proves you to be one of the first. In retrospect, it makes me look at the people running through the desert to reach the US from Mexico a little differently. We hold the Berlin Wall in such disdain, and yet it was the thought of so many presidential candidates to build one just like it.

Which side of history will we be found…a railroader, concerned with the needs, wants, and perilous states of our fellow man, or…???

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