Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman knew the thirst for freedom. Inspired by rumors of an “underground railroad” that carried slaves to liberation, she dreamed of escaping the nightmarish existence of the Southern plantations and choosing a life of her own making. But after she finally did escape, Tubman made a decision born of profound courage and moral conviction: to go back and help those she’d left behind.
As an activist on the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses running from South to North and eventually into Canada, Tubman delivered more than three hundred souls to freedom. She became an insidious threat to the Southern establishment—and a symbol of hope to slaves everywhere.
In this “well-written and moving life of the ‘Moses of her people’’’ (The Horn Book), an acclaimed author makes vivid and accessible the life of a national hero, soon to be immortalized on the twenty-dollar bill. This intimate portrait follows Tubman on her journey from bondage to freedom, from childhood to the frontlines of the abolition movement and even the Civil War.
In addition to being named a New York Times Outstanding Book, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad was also selected as an American Library Association Notable Book.
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About the Author
In 1947, Petry moved back to Old Saybrook, where she continued to write for children as well as adults. Her books for young readers include the biography Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955), and the historical novel Tituba of Salem Village (1955). Her works for adults include Country Place (1947), The Narrows (1953), and Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971).
Read an Excerpt
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
By Ann Petry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Ann Petry
All rights reserved.
Chesapeake Bay forms the western boundary of the section of Maryland which is sometimes called Tidewater Maryland, sometimes called the Eastern Shore. Here there are so many coves and creeks, rivers and small streams, that the land areas are little more than heads or necks of land, almost surrounded by water.
In these streams the ebb and flow of the tide is visible for miles inland — hence the name Tidewater Maryland.
In 1820, much of the Eastern Shore was heavily wooded. The streams were filled with fish. Game birds — wild duck and snipe — abounded in all of the coves and marshes. It could truly be said that every plantation thereabout "at its garden gate, has an oyster-bed, a fishing-bar, and a ducking blind."
The plantation that belonged to Edward Brodas, in Dorchester County, was typical of this section of Maryland, for one of its land boundaries was a river — the Big Buckwater River. It was more or less isolated. The nearest village, Bucktown, was little more than a settlement composed of post office, church, crossroads store, and eight or ten dwelling houses.
There was an air of leisure about the planter's life here. Fishing and hunting were an integral part of it, just as it had been part of the life of the Indians, who had practically disappeared from the Eastern Shore by 1750.
The house in which Edward Brodas lived was very large. There had to be room for his friends, his relatives, as well as his family. Visitors came from long distances, and so usually stayed a month or two before undertaking the journey back home. There were extra rooms for travelers, who carried the proper letters of introduction, because inns and taverns offered uncertain lodging for the night.
Edward Brodas was known as the Master to his Negro slaves. His house, which the slaves called the Big House, stood near a country road. The kitchen was a small detached building in the rear, known as the cookhouse. Not too far away from the Big House were the stables, where the riding horses and the carriage horses, the grooms and the hostlers were housed. Close to the stables were the kitchen gardens and the cutting gardens. Beyond these lay the orchards and the barns for the work horses and cows and mules.
The Big House, the cookhouse, the stables, formed a complete unit. Beyond this lay the fields, the clear cultivated land bordered by the forest.
Out of sight of the Big House, but not quite out of hearing, was the "quarter" where the slaves lived.
The quarter consisted of a group of one-room, windowless cabins. They were built of logs that had been cut from the nearby forests. The chinks were filled with mud. These roughhewn logs were filled with sap, and as they dried out, the wood contracting and expanding with changes in temperature, the roofs sagged, the walls buckled. The narrow clay-daubed chimneys leaned as though some unseen pressure were forcing them over. Seen from a distance, these sway-backed cabins seemed to huddle together as though for protection. The fact that they were exactly alike, that they were surrounded by the same barren hard-packed earth, furthered the illusion.
The cabins were exactly alike inside, too. There was a crude fireplace with one or two black iron pots standing in front of it. The hearth was merely a continuation of the dirt floor. When the wind blew hard, smoke came down the chimney, into the room, in puffs, so that the walls were smoke-darkened. Even in summer there was a characteristic smoky smell in the cabins.
The fireplace not only provided heat in winter, it was the source of light, and it was used for cooking. Piles of old worn-out blankets served as beds. There were no chairs; so the occupants of the cabins either squatted in front of the fire or sat on the floor. In the middle of the dirt floor there was a large, fairly deep hole covered over with loose boards. This was the potato hole, where sweet potatoes were stored in winter to protect them from the frost.
Harriet Greene, who was usually called Old Rit, and her husband, Benjamin Ross, both slaves, lived in one of these windowless cabins, in the quarter, on the Brodas plantation. They had several children, some of whom still lived with them. The older children were "hired out" by the master, Edward Brodas, to farmers who needed slave labor but who could not afford to buy slaves.
In 1820, Old Rit had another baby. There was no record made of the date of the birth of this child, because neither Old Rit nor her husband, Ben, could read or write.
Like most people who live close to the land, and who have neither clock nor calendar, they measured time by the sun, dividing it roughly into sunup, sunhigh, sundown. The year was not divided by months but by the seasons. It was separated into Seedtime, Cotton Blossom-time, Harvest, Christmas. One year was distinguished from another by its happenings, its big, memorable occurrences — the year of the big storm, the year of the early frost, or the long drought, the year the old master died, the year the young master was born.
Old Rit and Ben decided that they would call this new baby Araminta, a name that would be ultimately shortened to Minta or Minty. This would be her basket name or pet name, and would be used until she grew older. Then they would call her Harriet. That year would be separated from the others by referring to it as "the year Minty was born."
News, good or bad, traveled swiftly through the quarter. All the slaves knew that Old Rit had another baby. That night they left their own cabins, moving like shadows, pausing now and then to listen, always expecting to hear the sound of hoofbeats, loud and furious, along the road, a sound that meant the patrollers were hunting another runaway. Only they added an extra syllable to the word, making it "patteroller." Then, moving quietly, quickly, they slipped inside Ben's cabin, to look at the new baby.
They arrived in groups, two or three at a time, and stood looking down at the baby. It was a girl. They already knew that, but they asked whether it was a boy or a girl out of politeness; and asked what her name would be, though they knew that, too.
Girls were not worth much, and Old Rit already had a passel of children, but they did not say this. They suggested tactfully that Old Rit had better see to it that this new girl baby was trained as a cook or a weaver or a seamstress. Perhaps she could take care of children, be a child's nurse. That way she would never become a common field hand.
They admired the baby, briefly. They asked after the mother's health, and then lingered on, squatting down in front of the open fire, talking. The talk around the fire was about the new overseer, about the corn crop, about the weather, but it ended with the subject of freedom — just as it always did.
The bold ones, young, strong, said freedom lay to the North, and one could obtain it if one could but get there. A hush fell over the cabin, an uneasiness entered the room. It seemed to reach the sleeping children, huddled on the old blankets in the corner, for they stirred in their sleep.
They were all silent for a moment, remembering the ragged, half-starved runaways that they had seen brought back in chains, branded with an R, or the ears cropped, remembering how they had seen them whipped and sent South with the chain gang.
Then another of the slaves, squatted by the fire, broke the silence. He used a long word: manumission. It was a word the master used. It was a promise that had been made to all of them. If they were faithful and hardworking, the master would set them free, manumit them, when he died.
Someone pointed out that such things did and could happen. There were free Negroes living in their own cabins on the edge of the woods, not far away from the plantation. Because these people were free, their children were born free. This was said with a covert glance at the tiny new baby, Minta or Minty, who lay close by Old Rit's side, in a corner of the cabin.
One of the sad dispirited slaves said that freedom lay only in death.
The bold ones said this was not true. They said you could run away, get to the North and be free. Slaves were disappearing all the time from the nearby farms and plantations. True, some of them were caught, brought back and sold South, but many of them were not. Quite often the masters and the overseers came back without the runaways. They said they had sold them. But this was not necessarily true. Surely some of them, some of those young prime field hands, glossy skinned, supple-jointed, surely some of those strong young men must have reached the North.
Yes, the others said, but how could one know? How be certain? Why did none of them ever come back? Why were they never seen again? It was cold in the North. Perhaps they died on the way, died of cold and hunger. Who could possibly know?
Then uncertainty and uneasiness filled the cabin again. More and more slaves were disappearing. Edward Brodas, the master, was selling them off. Each time the trader came to Maryland, came to Cambridge, the master sold another group of slaves. Nowadays it seemed as though he were raising slaves just to sell them. Breeding them, just like the farmers bred cows or sheep.
They were doing the same thing on the other plantations in Dorchester County — the Stewart plantation, and the Ross plantation — they were all selling slaves. Things were not going well with the masters. They needed money. The Georgia trader paid high prices, and if the masters were in debt, or a crop had failed, or they had been gambling heavily and losing, they sold off another lot of slaves.
When the slaves learned that they were to be sold, they ran away. They always knew when the decision had been reached to sell them. They were afraid of the living death that awaited them in the rice fields, on the great cotton plantations, the sugar plantations, in the deep South — and so ran away.
To the slaves those words, sold South, sold down the river, carried the sound of doom. The master used it as a threat to recalcitrant slaves. The runaways that were caught and brought back were immediately sold South, as a punishment for running away.
Thus the action on both sides was like a circle that went around and around, never ending. The master kept selling slaves because he needed money. The slaves, learning that they were about to be sold, would run away. The number of runaways from Maryland kept increasing. Especially from this Eastern Shore where the rivers and coves offered a direct route to the North, where the Choptank River curved and twisted in a northeasterly course, the whole length of the state — all the way to Delaware.
That night in the quarter, one of the bold young slaves said if one could get hold of a boat, and there were boats everywhere — rowboats, gunning skiffs, punts, because almost every plantation was near a cove or a creek or an inlet — one could get away.
This whispering about freedom, about runaways, about manumission, went on every night, in windowless slave cabins all over the South. Slaves everywhere knew what happened in Washington, Boston, New York, Norfolk, Baltimore, if it dealt with the subject of slavery. They knew it sometimes before the masters heard about it.
The close communication, the rapid exchange of information among the slaves, troubled and disturbed the masters. They said, half in joke, half seriously, that news seemed to travel down the wind, or else that it pulsed along from plantation to plantation, traveling over the tangle of grapevines and honeysuckle that grew in the woods.
On the plantation of Edward Brodas, the slaves knew when the Georgia trader arrived in Cambridge, the nearest city, and rented a room in the tavern. They knew it before Brodas knew it. The trader sent out printed notices of his arrival. Though most of the slaves could not read, there were a few who could, and they told the others what it said on the trader's handbills: "Will pay top prices for prime field hands. ..."
On the night that Harriet (who would be known as Araminta, or Minty, or Minta) Ross was born, those words on the handbills were ever present in the minds of the slaves gathered in Old Rit's cabin. Before they said good night, they looked at the baby again. Someone said quietly, "Best thing to do is make sure she works in the Big House, sew or cook or weave — maybe be a nurse."
Old Rit drew the baby closer to her side, thinking, field hand, hot sun and long rows of cotton and the overseer's whip. Minty would never be a field hand if she had anything to do with it.
Then the slaves slipped out of the cabin as quietly as they had entered it, one at a time, bare feet making no sound at all on the hard smooth ground outside.
In that same year, 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, Thomas Garrett and his wife, Sarah, both Quakers, moved from Darby, Pennsylvania, to Wilmington, Delaware. Both of these people would, years later, know and admire Harriet Ross, though they would know her by a different name.
That year, John Brown, who was twenty years old, married the Widow Lusk, a short, plain-looking woman. He was in the tanning business in Hudson, Ohio, at the time of his marriage. Years later, he, too, would know and admire Harriet Ross.CHAPTER 2
The First Years
Like all the other babies in the quarter, Harriet Ross cut her first teeth on a piece of pork rind. The rind was tied to a string, and the string hung around her neck.
She learned to walk on the hard-packed earth outside the cabin, getting up, falling down, getting up again — a small naked creature, who answered to the name of Minta or Minty.
When she finally mastered the skill of walking, she began playing with other small children. All of the little ones, too young to run errands, were placed under the care of a woman, so old she could no longer work. She was a fierce-looking old woman, head wrapped in a white bandanna which she called a head rag. She sat crouched over, on the doorstep of her cabin, sucking on an empty clay pipe.
Though she was very old, she could still switch a small child with vigor, using a tough young shoot from a black gum tree, to enforce obedience. She never let the children out of her sight, warning them of the creek where they might drown, cautioning them about the nearby woods where they might get lost, shooing them out of the cabins lest they burn themselves in the hot ashes in the fireplaces. The children were afraid of her. She was toothless and she mumbled when she talked. The skin on her face was creased by a thousand wrinkles.
When she was in good humor, she told them stories about what she called the Middle Passage. The mumbling old voice evoked the clank of chains, the horror of thirst, the black smell of death, below deck in the hold of a slave ship. The children were too young to understand the meaning of the stories and yet they were frightened, standing motionless, listening to her, and shivering even if the sun was hot.
The mothers of these children worked in the fields. A few of them, like Old Rit, worked in or around the Big House.
Because the mothers were not at home, a family rarely ate together, all at the same time. The grownups ate from the skillet or black iron pot in which the food was cooked. Some of them ate from tin plates, balanced on the knees, eating for the most part with their hands.
The children were fed in a haphazard fashion, a bit of corn bread here, a scrap of pork there; occasionally they received a cup of milk, sometimes potatoes. When they were given corn-meal mush, it was poured into a large tray or trough. In winter the trough was placed on the floor of the cookhouse. In summer it was put outdoors, on the ground. The small children came running from all directions, with oyster shells, or pieces of shingle, to scoop up the mush. They swarmed around the trough of mush like so many small pigs.
Harriet, like the rest of the children, learned quickly that he who ate the fastest, got the most food. Yet they were always a little hungry, not starving, but with an emptiness inside them that was never quite assuaged.
She learned other things, too. On winter days, when the sun shone, she played on the south side of the cabin, where it was warmer. On cold rainy days, she huddled in a corner of the big chimney in the cookhouse, watching the constant stirring of the big iron pots. In the summer, when the sun was blistering hot, she stayed on the north side of the cabin because it was cooler there.
When Harriet was two years old, the whispering about freedom increased. In the quarter, at night, some of the slaves gathered together in the cabin that belonged to Ben, her father, and talked. It could hardly be called talking, it was conversation carried on under the breath, so that it was almost no sound at all.
On the way to Ben's cabin the slaves moved so quietly, so slowly, so stealthily, that they might have been part of the night itself. As they edged through the quarter, there was not even the soft sound of a bare foot on the hard-packed earth, not even the sound of breathing, not a cough, or a sneeze, nothing to indicate that a slave had left his own cabin and was paying a visit to another cabin.
Excerpted from Harriet Tubman by Ann Petry. Copyright © 1983 Ann Petry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. THE QUARTER,
2. THE FIRST YEARS,
3. SIX YEARS OLD,
4. HIRED OUT,
6. THE UNDERGROUND ROAD,
7. "SHUCK THIS CORN",
8. MINTA BECOMES HARRIET,
9. THE PATCHWORK QUILT,
10. "A GLORY OVER EVERYTHING",
11. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND,
12. FREEDOM'S CLOTHES,
13. THE LEGEND OF MOSES,
14. THE RAILROAD RUNS TO CANADA,
15. "GO ON OR DIE",
16. "BE READY TO STEP ON BOARD",
17. "MOSES ARRIVES WITH SIX PASSENGERS",
18. A WAGON LOAD OF BRICKS,
19. THE OLD FOLKS GO NORTH,
20. THE LECTURE PLATFORM,
21. WITH THE UNION ARMY,
22. THE LAST YEARS,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
From one of my students: This book is easy to read, a good length, has understandable vocabulary for a seventh grader, but has a very slow start. I felt as though I didn’t need to know every little detail about her childhood and it started to get a little bit repetitive. I would have also loved to see any images as it might have made the read more fun and enjoyable. If you wanted to get just the basic life events of Harriet Tubman I would not recommend this book. However, if you are someone really interested in every aspect of her life, you would enjoy this book. The history event blurbs at the end of each chapter was also a nice touch. (As a 12 year old who doesn’t enjoy non-fiction, I would probably not have picked up this book had I not been required to.)
"Go free or die" was what Harriet Tubman told reluctant runaway slaves. Short, strong, and brave "Moses," as she was called led over 300 people out of Maryland into Delaware and then on to Pennsylvania and then on to Canada. James does an excellent job of bringing Harriet's voice and that of other slaves, slaveholders, and abolitionists.
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a book that uses fictional language and combines it with historical facts. It is a lighter read with a considerable amount of vocabulary. Petry also introduces the reader to terminology used back then to help get a deeper understanding of the struggles slaves faced on plantations all over the world. Petry narrates through Harriet’s difficult life as a slave with emotion, exposing the flaws and effects slavery had on society back in the 1820’s. Harriet meets many people along the way to freedom who either help or hinder her free and rebellious spirit. This book primarily retells the story of Harriet’s rising tale from an unprivileged slave on a plantation to a courageous abolitionist.
“Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad” is a very good book. It provides the unique perspective and story of Harriet Tubman, an enslaved black woman, from her childhood to adulthood. You gain insight about enslaved people, what their lives were like, and how they used the Underground Railroad as an effective escape method (even though danger was always present). This novel is historical fiction but also includes excerpts about real historical events at the end of every chapter to help build background knowledge. You won’t feel pressured to rush through the book since it’s only 247 pages long. Plus, it’s well written, has incredible description, and great imagery. It is informative without being overwhelming, and you don’t even realize how much you’re learning! The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the writing. The language flows together beautifully, and I developed an emotional connection to Harriet and the hardships she endured. I definitely recommend this book.