Learning the lessons of history

Posted Sept. 18, 2009, at 1:27 a.m.

Last month, I had the chance to visit the birthplace of Harriet Tubman. Located in Dorchester County, Maryland, it is marked simply by a small plaque off a side road. Beyond it, there are just fields, one woman’s legacy and one’s own imagination. I closed my eyes and took a minute to listen to the whisper of waving grass and feel the humid breeze on my face. Though the buildings may be gone, those things, I imagined, have not changed.

Harriet Tubman’s story is nothing short of incredible. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, an abolitionist, a suffragist — and a woman as hard as nails. Hers is a household name; even so, I was surprised, while reading more about her birthplace, to learn the full breadth of her work. Few know, for instance, that she worked as a spy for the Union army. She was also the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War, guiding the raid on the Combahee River that liberated more than 700 slaves. Better known are the tales of her personally, often single-handedly rescuing slaves, many from her home county. She returned to the East-ern Shore of Maryland 13 times, freeing some 70 slaves, including her brothers, their wives and children. She carried a pistol with her, and she wasn’t afraid to use it.

As students across the state settle into the new school year, I remember why history lessons are important. My classmates in middle school used to ask, “Why do we have to learn about people who are already dead?” Understanding the relevance of men and women who lived generations before us wasn’t always easy. Yet, it’s our stories that make up the fabric of our country. And it’s stories like Harriet Tubman’s that have imbued us with the fighting spirit and ideals that we hold today.

Not far from her birthplace is the storefront where Tubman’s first major act of defiance earned her a “broken skull.” An overseer was about to run after one of his slaves and Tubman — known then as “Araminta,” or “Minty”— stepped directly in the overseer’s path. In his anger, the overseer threw a 2-pound metal weight at her head, a severe blow that caused permanent brain damage. She received no medical treatment and, still bleeding, was sent back to work two days later. For the rest of her life, she suffered from spells and seizures.

By the time Tubman was in her 20s, she was determined to escape. She had been pushed to her limits, to the point where her freedom — and the freedom of others — was worth her life. “There was one of two things I had a right to,” she is quoted as having explained later in life. “Liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

She did escape. She went on to become known as “the Moses of her people,” and then worked for the Union army, first as a cook, then as a nurse, and then as an armed scout and a spy. Even after her retirement to a family home in Auburn, N.Y., Tubman continued to be active in the women’s suffrage movement until her death.

It’s a funny thing, envisioning the past. As I stood at Tubman’s birthplace, I tried to put myself in the shoes of this remarkable woman. In school, I had learned how terrible and inhumane slavery is; but like much of history, the topic was distant and mostly intellectual to me — something I knew, but rarely felt.

Every once in a while, though, I drag out my imagination and try, really try, to imagine what it would have been like to have been Harriet Tubman, or any slave. Hunted by dogs. Bought and sold. Briefly, with the wind-blown field of Tubman’s birthplace stretching beyond, I felt that for a few moments I understood being a slave — and it was devastating.

Tubman’s story, and all the stories of our past, reach out across time and capture our imagination. The stories get passed from one generation to the next. We remember them because they stand for the things we strive to stand for: freedom, dignity and humanity.

I got back into my car and drove into town, toward the modern houses and buildings and fast-food restaurants of 2009. But before I left, I took one last long look around me at a rural landscape that hasn’t changed much since 1820. Neither have many of the things that are important to us.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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