A Tribute to Harriet Tubman

Sam P.K. Collins | 3/13/2013, 1:55 p.m.

Last weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, one of America's most prolific historical figures. While commemorations across the region included an array of ceremonies and ground breakings, one federal agency decided to educate the public about Tubman's achievements.

The National Park Service and D.C. Reading is Fundamental, a local non-profit in Northwest, hosted a program on Saturday, March 9 at the Frederick Douglass Historical Site in Southeast. History buffs and others packed a hall inside the Visitors Center to learn about Tubman's role in the Civil War from noted scholars, C.R. Gibbs and Rosemary Sadlier. The group of 30, who attended the event, also enjoyed a tour of the Frederick Douglass House after the 90 minute lecture ended.

"I find Harriet Tubman to be a rather intriguing individual," said Michael Muanankese, 27, in regard to what motivated him to attend the lecture. "What she did defied logic by all measures and was exceptional in my opinion. You have to respect her courage," the Silver Spring resident said.

Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor, known for leading slaves to freedom through an intricate network comprised of safe houses never lost a passenger during her 19 trips to Northern states and Canada. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a Union spy and led an armed expedition in South Carolina that freed 700 slaves. After the war ended, Tubman helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harper's Ferry and worked with Susan B. Anthony in the women's suffrage movement.

Gibbs, an historian of the African Diaspora, described the effects of emancipation in the District, which occurred nine months prior to President Abraham Lincoln actually signing the Emancipation Proclamation document. Gibbs chronicled points during the Civil War, beginning with Tubman's plea to Lincoln to allow slaves to fight with the Union Army. His presentation included a slide show that depicted events during the Civil War. The historian piqued the interest of younger audience members through his thorough knowledge of the subject matter, gestures and voice intonation - which conveyed his passion for the various topics that he discussed during the event.

"The best part of lecturing for me is showing the young people these images and giving them the facts," said Gibbs, 63. "I want to drive home the fact that this is serious. When I present with conviction, it is to show them that they need to feel the same way that I do about our history and culture," the Southeast resident said.

The "change in the rules," as Gibbs called the emancipation of slaves in the District, served to expedite the arrival of thousands of blacks to the nation's capital. Freed blacks already living in the District waited months to find out the fate of other slave states. The influx of blacks led to the establishment of schools and churches in the District, including Shiloh Baptist Church now located on 9th and P Streets in Northwest.

Even though 80,000 slaves from Tubman's home state of Maryland had not yet been emancipated, black men had the opportunity to enlist in the Union Army's only black regiment in the District, much to the chagrin of the white planter class. Virginia, a confederate state, didn't acknowledge the Emancipation Proclamation when Lincoln signed it nine months later. Toward the end of his lecture, Gibbs drew parallels between class conflicts and current events. He focused on Mississippi's ratification of the 13th Amendment which took place in February, more than 137 years after it became a part of the Constitution.

"The most important thing to emphasize to young people is that they cannot look at what happened in the past in isolation," said Gibbs. "The past has not yet passed. It is still connected to the present."

Charles Hicks, who retired from the D.C. Public Library system several years ago, said that he was impressed by the mix of both young and older people in the audience. He felt that everyone who left the lecture learned something new.

"I'm supportive of any effort to educate people about our past," said Hicks, 66. "It's always enlightening when people want to learn. It shows that we're willing to learn and share information," the Southwest resident said with a smile.