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Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman – Part 4

HARRIET TUBMAN, known at various times, and in various places, by many different names, such as “Moses,” in allusion to her being the leader and guide to so many of her people in their exodus from the Land of Bondage; “the Conductor of the Underground Railroad;” and “Moll Pitcher,” for the energy and daring by which she delivered a fugitive slave who was about to be dragged back to the South; was for the first twenty-five years of her life a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland. Her own master she represents as never unnecessarily cruel; but as was common among slaveholders, he often hired out his slaves to others, some of whom proved to be tyrannical and brutal to the utmost limit of their power.

She had worked only as a field-hand for many years, following the oxen, loading and unloading wood, and carrying heavy burdens, by which her naturally remarkable power of muscle was so developed that her feats of strength often called forth the wonder of strong laboring men. Thus was she preparing for the life of hardship and endurance which lay before her, for the deeds of daring she was to do, and of which her ignorant and darkened mind at that time never dreamed.

The first person by whom she was hired was a woman who, though married and the mother of a family, was still “Miss Susan” to her slaves, as is customary at the South. This woman was possessed of the good things of this life, and provided liberally for her slaves–so far as food and clothing went. But she had been brought up to believe, and to act upon the belief, that a slave could be taught to do nothing, and would do nothing but under the sting of the whip. Harriet, then a young girl, was taken from her life in the field, and having never seen the inside of a house better than a cabin in the negro quarters, was put to house-work with out being told how to do anything. The first thing was to put a parlor in order. “Move these chairs and tables into the middle of the room, sweep the carpet clean, then dust everything, and put them back in their places!” These were the directions given, and Harriet was left alone to do her work.

The whip was in sight on the mantel-piece, as a reminder of what was to be expected if the work was not done well. Harriet fixed the furniture as she was told to do, and swept with all her strength, raising a tremendous dust. The moment she had finished sweeping, she took her dusting cloth, and wiped everything “so you could see your face in ’em, de shone so,” in haste to go and set the table for breakfast, and do her other work. The dust which she had set flying only settled down again on chairs, tables, and the piano. “Miss Susan” came in and looked around. Then came the call for “Minty“–Harriet’s name was Araminta at the South.

She drew her up to the table, saying, “What do you mean by doing my work this way, you–!” and passing her finger on the table and piano, she showed her the mark it made through the dust. “Miss Susan, I done sweep and dust jus’ as you tole me.” But the whip was already taken down, and the strokes were falling on head and face and neck. Four times this scene was repeated before breakfast, when, during the fifth whipping, the door opened, and “Miss Emily” came in. She was a married sister of “Miss Susan,” and was making her a visit, and though brought up with the same associations as her sister, seems to have been a person of more gentle and reasonable nature. Not being able to endure the screams of the child any longer, she came in, took her sister by the arm, and said, “If you do not stop whipping that child, I will leave your house, and never come back!” Miss Susan declared that “she would not mind, and she slighted her work on purpose.” Miss Emily said, “Leave her to me a few moments;” and Miss Susan left the room, indignant.

As soon as they were alone, Miss Emily said: “Now, Minty, show me how you do your work.” For the sixth time Harriet removed all the furniture into the middle of the room; then she swept; and the moment she had done sweeping, she took the dusting cloth to wipe off the furniture. “Now stop there,” said Miss Emily; “go away now, and do some of your other work, and when it is time to dust, I will call you.” When the time came she called her, and explained to her how the dust had now settled, and that if she wiped it off now, the furniture would remain bright and clean. These few words an hour or two before, would have saved Harriet her whippings for that day, as they probably did for many a day after.

While with this woman, after working from early morning till late at night, she was obliged to sit up all night to rock a cross, sick child. Her mistress laid upon her bed with a whip under her pillow, and slept; but if the tired nurse forgot herself for a moment, if her weary head dropped, and her hand ceased to rock the cradle, the child would cry out, and then down would come the whip upon the neck and face of the poor weary creature. The scars are still plainly visible where the whip cut into the flesh. Perhaps her mistress was preparing her, though she did not know it then, by this enforced habit of wakefulness, for the many long nights of travel, when she was the leader and guide of the weary and hunted ones who were escaping from bondage.

Miss Susan” got tired of Harriet, as Harriet was determined she should do, and so abandoned her intention of buying her, and sent her back to her master. She was next hired out to the man who inflicted upon her the life-long injury from which she is suffering now, by breaking her skull with a weight from the scales. The injury thus inflicted causes her often to fall into a state of somnolency from which it is almost impossible to rouse her. Disabled and sick, her flesh all wasted away, she was returned to her owner. He tried to sell her, but no one would buy her. “Dey said dey wouldn’t give a sixpence for me,” she said.

And so,” she said, “from Christmas till March I worked as I could, and I prayed through all the long nights–I groaned and prayed for ole master: ‘Oh Lord, convert master!’ ‘Oh Lord, change dat man’s heart!’ ‘Pears like I prayed all de time,” said Harriet; “’bout my work, everywhere, I prayed an’ I groaned to de Lord. When I went to de horse-trough to wash my face, I took up de water in my han’ an’ I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean!’ Den I take up something to wipe my face, an’ I say, ‘Oh Lord, wipe away all my sin!’ When I took de broom and began to sweep, I groaned, ‘Oh Lord, wha’soebber sin dere be in my heart, sweep it out, Lord, clar an’ clean!'”

No words can describe the pathos of her tones, as she broke out into these words of prayer, after the manner of her people. “An’ so,” said she, “I prayed all night long for master, till the first of March; an’ all the time he was bringing people to look at me, an’ trying to sell me. Den we heard dat some of us was gwine to be sole to go wid de chain-gang down to de cotton an’ rice fields, and dey said I was gwine, an’ my brudders, an’ sisters. Den I changed my prayer. Fust of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ant nebber gwine to change dat man’s heart, kill him, Lord, an’ take him out ob de way.’

Nex’ ting I heard old master was dead, an’ he died jus’ as he libed. Oh, then, it ‘peared like I’d give all de world full ob gold, if I had it, to bring dat poor soul back. But I couldn’t pray for him no longer.”

Previously: Letters of Introduction
Next: Some Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman — Part 2

This is part of a multi-part series published to celebrate Black History Month in 2012. The list of published posts can be found at Book Directory: Scenes In The Life Of Harriet Tubman. Use the Stay In Touch box below to recieve e-mail notifications about new posts.

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