Get our newsletters

By the Way: Preserving Black history, with Harriet Tubman’s help

Posted

In a rich, soft-spoken voice, a costumed Yardley woman portrayed Harriet Tubman, breathing life into the image of the fearless woman who led so many slaves to freedom.

“I never lost a passenger,” she said, as she described her Underground Railroad journeys.

The performance by Shirley Lee Corsey at Pennsbury Manor spurred the 70 or so people —Black and white — to a thundering standing ovation.

When I heard Corsey was doing a historical reenactment called “Harriet Tubman — Live!” I just had to go. I grew up in Bristol and, even as a young child, I had known about the Underground Railroad and which homes had secretly sheltered the enslaved people as they fled to freedom. I went to school with descendants of those who had settled in town.

Corsey patterned her talk after that of a West African griot, a storyteller/historian and caretaker of knowledge for a society. That is who she is.

It was not just entertaining but also her way of preserving the history of the small Black community in Yardley. It was a place, she once wrote in a blog, she never felt the scourge of racism, although she “knew we were different.”

Hers was a happy childhood, far different from that of Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in 1822 as Araminta “Minty” Ross, and “hired out” by her owner, at age 6 as a babysitter for a woman who whipped her whenever the child cried.

Corsey traced Tubman’s story through the moment she realized her sisters had been sold and “I would never ever see my sisters again on this Earth.”

When she was 15, she worked on a farm. “I had to do everything my brothers did. I grew strong like my brothers,” she said, but suffered a head injury that caused her severe seizures later in life.

When she was 22, she married John Tubman, a free Black man. “That day was so special. I thought, ‘I’m a woman now, just like my mama.’” Her father had been freed when he was 45, but her mother was still enslaved. “If your mama is free all her children are free,” Corsey explained.

The possibility for freedom occurred to Harriet when she first went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She saw the longshoremen on their river boats and discovered Philadelphia and freedom lay only 90 miles away.

Her first taste of freedom? Corsey repeated Harriet’s words, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun rose like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven”

“A Quaker lady told me there were white people who would let you stay in their houses,” she said. “I knew to follow the river. I knew I’d have to travel by night, hide during the day. I knew to look for the North Star.”

This woman who could neither read nor write fled to Philadelphia alone, returned to Maryland to begin shepherding family and friends through the night to safety in Philadelphia and Bristol and later through New York and New England to Canada, where she knew the British had already outlawed slavery.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Harriet actually served as a spy and scout for Union forces. She was the first woman to lead a major military operation, freeing 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In 1865, she said, “The Union prevailed and began the toughest job of bringing our country back together.”

A free woman and a widow, Harriet married Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran, in 1869. They adopted a little girl and settled in Auburn, N.Y., where her home became a boarding house with “an open door.” She later turned it into a home for the elderly.

Corsey went on to tell of Harriet’s friendship with the ill-fated John Brown, Frederick Douglass and later Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott of women’s suffrage fame who lived in nearby Seneca Falls, N.Y. “I can’t read. I can’t write, but they asked me to speak,” Harriet said.

Finally, she said, chuckling, “In 1911, I moved into my own old-folks home.” She died in 1913.

Corsey herself is a pathfinder. She is leading a drive to renovate the little African Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1817 in Yardley Borough and has turned it into Gather Place Museum to preserve and promote Black history.

Kathryn Finegan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Durham Township. She can be reached at kathyclark817@gmail.com.


X