By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
FAIRLESS HILLS – Human slavery robbed its victims of their dignity, and Marie Louise Davis, a Bristol resident and descendant of Harriet Tubman, recounted just how at a Feb. 13 student assembly at Conwell-Egan High School. Dressed in period clothing and speaking in the dialect of her great-grandfather’s niece, she compared slavery to a pair of shoes:
“You buy them, you can walk around in them. When they wear out you can throw them away. If they pinch you or you think they are too big, you can sell them or give them away. The mastah up there in the big house, he get behind in his mortgage, he thinks, ‘that fella could give me $500 if I sell him ‘down the river.’
“It was bad enough in Maryland where they work you from sun-up to sun-down. Down the river they work you ’til you dead. They don’t care, somebody ‘up there’ will sell them another.”
Tubman knew of what she spoke. Several of her brothers and sisters were sold “down that river,” that is, to the Deep South, and she never saw them again.
Born in slavery as Araminta (Minty) Ross on a Maryland plantation somewhere around 1820, as a child Tubman was often beaten and at one point severely injured. In the 1840s, although still a slave, she married a free African-American, John Tubman, and also adopted her mother’s name, Harriet.
“My ma called me Araminta, some people called me Moses, and old John Brown called me, ‘the general,'” she would later say.
Her real career started in 1849, when fearing she herself was about to be sold, she fled the plantation. With the help of the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses for fugitive slaves conducted mostly by sympathetic whites, she made her way north to Philadelphia and freedom.
Not content with her own freedom, the following year she returned to Maryland to rescue her parents. Over the next decade, at great risk to her own life and liberty, she was credited with bringing an estimated 300 escaped slaves north, taking some to Canada, well out of reach of slave-catchers.
During the Civil War, she served as a Union spy and a nurse for a time. Afterward she continued as a champion for the former slaves and for women’s rights, dying in 1913 at the estimated age of 93.
“She went through a lot and in spite of not being able to read, she was an intelligent and resourceful person,” said Davis, a member of the African-American Historical Society of Bucks County, who speaks about Tubman at various venues.
Often before hearing her presentation, listeners, especially the young, may have some idea who Tubman was, but they don’t understand the real nuances of slavery, she said.
The assembly on Tubman was an initiative of Conwell-Egan students in the EAST (Environmental and Spacial Technology) program, according to Conwell-Egan President Lorraine Rice. It’s a service learning program in which students are charged to go out into the community, find a problem, come back to the EAST laboratory and use high-end technology to solve the problem.
In this case, videotaping the compelling presentation by Davis was part of an overall project to document the extensive Underground Railroad network which existed in Bucks County.
“The students are aware that the history of it is fading, and they thought this would be a great service to the community to preserve it,” Rice said.
“This was an opportunity to hear about Bristol history, its African-American history,” said project member Shawn Foley, a senior. “I’ve learned more about Bristol history than I knew before.”
Trish Bowman, a junior, did not know much about Harriet Tubman before getting involved in the EAST project. “This was very moving. I was able to experience what it felt like to be back there. Our students probably have a whole new outlook on this,” she said.
Freshman Joshua Marshall did already know about Tubman, but thought, “it was really good to learn what she went through. The student documentary on the Underground Railroad shows you how far it got.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.