Editor’s note: For Black History Month, The Root is speaking to the relatives of our most cherished African-American heroes in a series called Living With History. To open the series, we interviewed a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Next, we did a Q&A with the descendants of Ida B. Wells, and last week we spoke to a descendant of W.E.B. Du Bois. Today we close the series with Pauline Copes Johnson, the great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman, the famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and a scout, spy and nurse during the Civil War. We spoke to Johnson about how she’s upholding Tubman’s legacy and the importance of history.
In the darkness of night, as specks of light brightened the sky, she escaped from slavery, fleeing on foot from Maryland to Pennsylvania, with the North Star as her guide.
She was born Araminta “Minty” Ross around 1820 in Dorchester County, Md. Years later, she changed her first name to her mother’s name, Harriet; and in 1844, when she married John Tubman, a free black man, she changed her last name to Tubman.
In 1849 she began her exodus from a life of bondage on the Poplar Neck plantation to a new life of freedom in the North. Harriet Tubman traveled 90 miles to Philadelphia, carefully feeling her way through to a place she had no knowledge of but had met in her dreams.
Tubman, a 5-foot-2-inch warrior, women’s rights supporter and strategist, sought freedom at all costs.
“Her legacy is to keep going, and that’s what I’m trying to do, and I hope all African Americans are, too. [I hope we are] trying to keep going and make things better for us,” Pauline Copes Johnson, Tubman’s great-great-grandniece, told The Root.
Johnson, who is 89 years old, found out she was related to Tubman when she was 25, and feels “a goodness” in being a part of Tubman’s family.
Since the 1980s, Johnson has traveled around the United States giving presentations to schools, senior citizens homes and organizations about Tubman’s life before and after the Civil War, including the 50 years Tubman lived in upstate Auburn, N.Y.
“I love doing it. I just want people to know that all African Americans are not crazy, or they’re not dumb, and they’re not ignorant,” Johnson said. “And that’s part of the reason why I do it.”
By telling Tubman’s story, she wants people to become aware of African Americans’ past in America.
“[History] is to know why we’re here, where we came from and [that] our ancestors paid with their lives for many of the things they did,” Johnson said. “Our ancestors came from Africa. They were forced over here and put into slavery. They did the work of this country. Not the white man.”
As a slave, Tubman suffered abuse daily and quickly sensed that her living conditions were inhumane. In addition to working in the fields, she was hired out to temporary masters to do work such as checking muskrat traps, loading timber and housekeeping.
When she was 7 years old, Tubman was hired as a nursemaid and was expected to stay up all night to care for an infant. If she fell asleep, or when the baby cried, she was whipped, often on her face and neck.
“She was beat so much. I don’t know how she withstood that. But she could,” Johnson said.
As a teen, Tubman was hired as a field hand to a farmer nearby. When an overseer tried to stop another slave who was trying to escape, Tubman intentionally stood in the way. The overseer picked up an iron weight and threw it at the other slave, but missed and hit Tubman on the forehead. She was in a coma for weeks; and for the rest of her life, she suffered from seizures, headaches, sleeping spells and visions.
She wouldn’t be free from such violence until several years later, but relied on her faith to sustain her:
In the moment she was free, however, she immediately realized that she was alone. This motivated her to return to the South to rescue her family members and friends in 1851, despite the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
Called the “Moses of Her People,” Tubman took more than a dozen trips to the South over a 10-year period and used the Underground Railroad to help hundreds of slaves, including her loved ones, to escape to the Northern states and Canada.
“She had it in her mind that all men should be free, and women too, and children,” Johnson said. “And they had the chance to become free and they took that chance. They were very clever, and Harriet was the best conductor on the Underground Railroad. And I’ll tell ya, I am very proud of her.”
At one point in her journey, Tubman overheard men reading her wanted poster, which mentioned that she couldn’t read or write. To mask her identity, she quickly grabbed a book and pretended to read it. Her swift response and wit saved her life.
It is this history and all black history that encourages Johnson. She mentioned that she recently went to the movie theater to watch the film Hidden Figures, and criticized the fact that their story had been withheld for so long.
“When [African Americans] do good, they don’t advertise it; but when they do bad things, oh my God, they’re on the front pages of the newspaper,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I think it is prejudice. African Americans built this country, from the South up [to New York], and they don’t get any credit for it.”
She added that Black History Month means a lot to her because it’s a time when we discuss what African Americans have contributed to America.
“I don’t think black history should be suppressed. It should be brought out into the open,” she said. “And I don’t think we should only have one month to celebrate black history. I think it should be celebrated throughout the year.”
In 1859 Tubman purchased a parcel of land in Auburn, N.Y., where she settled years later. On the property, she grew food for the needy, and in 1908 she established the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People for elderly and impoverished individuals. She died on March 10, 1913, after suffering from pneumonia.
Johnson, who also lives in Auburn, is excited about the nation’s efforts to honor Tubman’s life, including replacing President Andrew Jackson with Tubman’s image on the front of the $20 bill; the U.S. Department of Interior taking steps to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in her hometown in upstate New York; and the declaration of 2017 as the “Year of Tubman” by the Maryland Park Service, which, in partnership with the National Park Service, is opening the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Md., on March 11.
“It is wonderful that Aunt Harriet is getting recognition. She deserves all of the recognition she can get,” Johnson said. “And I am so glad that she’s going to be on the $20 bill. When they let me know that I said, ‘Hallelujah, at last it has come to pass.’”
A new photo of Tubman was revealed earlier this month, and historians say that she was between the ages of 43 and 46 when it was taken. Johnson viewed the image of Harriet and respects the woman it captured.
“She certainly was bound and determined to be free, and that’s what she did,” Johnson said. “She didn’t look like she was afraid of anybody.”