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Harriet Tubman Day

A portrait of Harriet Tubman by Benjamin Powelson, 1868 or 1869. Source: Library of Congress

Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Benjamin Powelson, 1868 or 1869. Source: Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman Day, celebrated every March 10, honors the life of the anti-slavery activist. Born into slavery in 1822, Tubman escaped bondage and subsequently completed about 13 missions, leading more than 70 people to freedom. This was accomplished with a network of abolitionists and safe-houses known as the Underground Railroad.

The railroad extended from the American South to its final destination in St. Catharines, Ontario. St. Catharines is also the home of Salem Chapel Church. Tubman was an active member of this faith community for nearly 10 years.

To learn how faith, abolitionism and St. Catharines intersected through the life and actions of Tubman, Backstory spoke with Rochelle Bush, a member of the St. Catharines community and a trustee and historian at Salem Chapel Church.

BackStory: What is the role that faith and faith communities played in the abolitionist movement?

Bush: To be quite honest, with Christian faith in that era, it was divided: There was the Northern Jesus and the Southern Jesus. Southern Jesus, of course, [was used by] slave masters to enslave blacks. Northern Jesus used the Bible to stop oppression, to release African Americans from their enslavement.

BackStory: Salem Chapel Church was Methodist, right?

Bush: Yes. Our parent body remains the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

BackStory: And that was always an abolitionist version of Christian faith?

Bush: Yes.

BackStory: That involvement in abolitionism, that was something that was always in the church’s DNA? With regard to their faith? Or was it something that they kind of came into, especially at Salem Chapel Church specifically?

Bush: It was something that was always there because of John Wesley. The Methodist denomination was founded in the United Kingdom in London, England. Wesley fought for the abolition of the slave trade as well as prison reform. Once he started preaching in the United States, because he was in Georgia for a period of time, the message that he was putting forth was the abolition of slavery. That reached the black community – those who were enslaved and those who were in the North. That was how Bishop Allen actually became the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

BackStory: That was a message that obviously resonated very strongly with slaves in general and especially escaped slaves. What can you tell me about how that resonated with Harriet Tubman specifically? What role did that play in her actions and in her beliefs?

A portrait of Harriet Tubman by Harvey Lindsley. Taken between 1871 and 1876?, printed between 1895 and 1910. Source: Library of Congress

Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Harvey Lindsley. Taken between 1871 and 1876?, printed between 1895 and 1910. Source: Library of Congress

Bush: Most people of African descent who were enslaved gravitated towards Methodism because of Wesley’s message and Allen’s message. We do know with certainty that Tubman was enslaved. Her slave-holders at the time were Methodist. When she helped her parents escape from the South, they weren’t enslaved they were free blacks, but her father was going to be tried and convicted because of the Sam Green trial.

Sam Green was accused of aiding and abetting runaway slaves, and the only charge they could lay upon him was him having a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So, when Tubman returned to Maryland to rescue her parents, when they stopped in Philadelphia at William Still’s location (because William Still, of course, was the President of the Vigilant society and he was a member of the abolitionist community), Tubman’s father told Still in the narrative that the slaveholder was a Methodist who pretended to preach.

BackStory: So, he was a member of the Methodist denomination by name maybe, but not by belief?

Bush: That’s correct.

BackStory: How did Salem Chapel Church and St. Catharines in general become incorporated into the Underground Railroad and a final destination for escaped slaves?

Bush: The Underground Railroad had two lines: the Eastern Shore line, which of course was on the East side, and then the Western line which was Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, the main terminus in Detroit crossing over into Windsor.

Tubman, because she was on the Eastern line, gravitated towards the abolitionist stations or safe houses already in place. Frederick Douglass, in his second biography, indicated that he used the Eastern line, and he named the stations.

Around 1890, when Harriet Tubman was being interviewed by Professor Wilbur Siebert, she indicated that she used the Eastern line and she identified the same station houses that Frederick Douglass used. Once she escaped from Maryland she stopped into Delaware, she went into Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), then New York State. She would have stopped in New York City, then Troy, Albany, Peterboro, Syracuse, Rochester, then Black Rock, and then on to Suspension Bridge, which is Niagara Falls New York, and then crossing into Canada from that location into Niagara Falls, Ontario.

BackStory: And then St. Catharines is right in that area too?

Bush: Right, St. Catharines is twelve miles away from the border crossing.

BackStory: So, geographically, it made a lot of sense for it to be a resting point. How was Harriet Tubman involved in the St. Catharines community? She was a member of Salem Chapel Church?

Bush: Yes, she was. Bear in mind that few people called her Harriet, they identified her as Moses, which was her code name for the Underground Railroad. They understood that she was assisting freedom seekers as they departed from Maryland and then guided them here to St. Catharines.

BackStory: She was a pretty active member of the church?

Bush: Well, she was in St. Catharines for a 10-year period, but she was always moving in and out of the United States. There’s only two accounts that we know of, both written by Richard Ball, he went on to be a minister in the British Methodist Episcopal churches.

He grew up in St. Catharines and he recalled Tubman guiding freedom seekers here, or fugitive slaves or runaway slaves, to St. Catharines. He noted that when she was in the church because she had what we would call perhaps modern-day narcolepsy or temporal lobe syndrome, but in that time they called it a sleeping spell, she often fell asleep.

He said that she had a deep voice, an alto voice, very rustic, but that she was a beautiful songstress. He documented her obituary, which was the only one that recognized her in Canada, when she passed on March 10, 1913. In 1924, he wrote another article about her, the one that I just described, about her singing in the chapel and living in the community and being well respected.

"Gospel Hymns No. 2" by P. P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey (1876), personal hymnal of Harriet Tubman. Photographed at National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC by Adam Fagen. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Gospel Hymns No. 2” by P. P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey (1876), personal hymnal of Harriet Tubman. Photographed at National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC by Adam Fagen. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

>>Learn more about Harriet Tubman’s hymnal

There was also William Wells Brown. When he visited the community in 1860, shortly before the Civil War broke out, he interviewed a lot of the runaway slaves that were living here, and the majority of them said that they felt that she had supernatural powers, that she had that charm and that God protected her.

BackStory: So, it was those primary accounts that linked her to the community? At least historically speaking?

Bush: Yes. And she herself said, when she was asked in an interview years later after the Underground Railroad, she said she didn’t trust Uncle Sam with her people no longer, so she brought them all clear up to Canada. She said that because of the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, that the federal government now had the freedom to hire bounty hunters, and judges were on the take – it was a rigged system. They could kidnap any free black person who was living in the northern states. In order to secure their freedom, she crossed the border.

BackStory: Many of us grew up in school learning about Harriet Tubman, but Canada, once they had escaped to that side, it was sort of left out.

Bush: It’s an amazing story. There are a number of accounts that indicate, and this is from her words, her quotes, indicating Canada and crossing at Suspension Bridge. If that wasn’t documented in her narrative, while she was still alive because she never disputed it, people probably would not believe it today.

And then, of course, there’s her one famous quote from here in St. Catharines in 1855, when she states that slavery is the next thing to hell. That was documented in “A North-side View of Slavery,” written by Benjamin Drew, who was a Boston abolitionist. He came up here to interview many of the freedom seekers who had escaped and Tubman never denied her real name. A lot of them wouldn’t give their name, others changed their names, they used aliases, but she used her real name.

An image of Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, seated in chair, facing front, probably at her home in Auburn, New York, 1911. Source: Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, seated in chair, facing front, probably at her home in Auburn, New York, 1911. Source: Library of Congress

BackStory: That kind of touches on what you said earlier about the use of God, by the North and the South, for very different ends.

Bush: Oh absolutely. Tubman herself said that she asked God for guidance, she spoke to God on a daily basis. The Lord was her savior, she never discounted that, and there’s no part in her narrative where she doesn’t give reverence to God, she’s always praising the Lord, which is a beautiful thing.

Footnote: Rochelle Bush is the trustee and church historian of Salem Chapel Church. Her three-times great-grandfather, who first arrived in Canada West in 1838, was the minister in charge when Harriet Tubman lived in St. Catharines.

 

 

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