This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?
Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.