A Moses for the Slaves – A Life Helping Others
SUBJECTS — U.S. History 1812- 1865; African-American; Maryland;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Female Role Model; Breaking Out; Courage; Disabilities;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility.
Rated PG-13; 2019; 2 hours, 5 minutes; Color. In theaters now, movie’s official website.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
- Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and
- Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
Harriet Tubman was without doubt one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity enabled her to escape from slavery in 1849. She then became an “abductor” for the Underground Railroad. With a price on her head and facing certain torture and death if she were caught, Harriet Tubman went back into the South 13 times freeing the rest of her family and many other slaves. It is estimated that she shepherded some 70 – 300 slaves to freedom. She was also instrumental in freeing 750 slaves in one military operation during the Civil War.
This film is well-grounded historical fiction, giving a sense of the times and providing a reasonably accurate portrayal of the almost superhuman exploits of its heroine.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Awards: Awards Season Not Begun
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn
Director: Kasi Lemmons
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Not only does Harriet tell the story a black female role model, it also demonstrates the humanitarian vision of hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who worked to end slavery. It is accurate to call slavery the original sin of the United States. However, it is also true that before and during the Civil War many Americans put their lives and livelihoods at risk to eradicate this great evil. They did this with no thought of reward but in the hope of redeeming the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the soul of the country itself. (Can anyone imagine the U.S. playing its role in WW I, WW II, and the Cold War if slavery had still existed?) While it is a tragedy that the hopes of African-Americans for equality were frustrated by the hundred years of Jim Crow and that some discrimination against black Americans still exists, the idealism and sacrifice of those who worked to end slavery before and during the Civil War is an important chapter in American history. Harriet Tubman was one of the foremost of those brave women and men whose moral vision and humanitarian spirit inspired them to fight for the end of slavery.
There are some elements of historical error, however, these weaknesses will become strengths when pointed out to students.
This film is now out in theaters. See it with your children, share their marvel at the accomplishments of this illiterate slave. Talk to them about the abolitionists and share with them the fact that Harriet Tubman labored to help others all her life. She lived for approximately 90 years, until 1913, and in her old age was active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Share with your children some of the scenes that accurately show her exploits.
The film conveys a correct sense of the life of Harriet Tubman through the Civil War. Many of the exploits shown in the film actually occurred. Here are some samples.
- Harriet Tubman was called “Moses” by the slaves . See, e.g., Bradford, p. 41; Clinton pp. 79 – 87. It is estimated that she shepherded some 70 – 300 slaves to freedom. (Braddock says 300 (p, 6) while Clinton thinks it’s closer to 70. Clinton p. 216.)
- In the two years after Harriet Tubman escaped, she saved enough money from her work to make the hazardous journey back to Maryland to get her husband. However, she found that he had remarried, thinking she was dead. He refused to come North with her. Bradford, p. 111. Clinton, pp. 83,
- Harriet Tubman suffered a head-injury when she was struck in the forehead by a lead weight thrown by a white overseer at an escaping slave. Harriet had moved between the two men to block the overseer from pursuing the slave. Clinton pp. 21 & 22. Harriet was 13 at the time. Bradford, pp. 14 & 15. For the rest of her life she suffered from headaches and periods in which she would lose consciousness and appear to be in a trance or asleep. Clinton p. 29.
- Harriet Tubman was very religious and believed that she spoke with God and he with her. Clinton, p. 83; She believed that he protected her by guiding her on her missions to free slaves. Clinton, 83, 91 & 92. She believed that she had visions of the future. See e.g. Bradford, pp. 114 & 115, 118 & 119; Clinton p. 29 – 30.
- Slaves communicated through song, and Harriet Tubman participated in this practice sometimes using it as a signal to other slaves that she was going to make a break for freedom or, when she returned to abduct more slaves, that it was time to run. Bradford, pp. 27 & 28.
- Harriet Tubman went back to the South on 19 occasions to lead her family or other slaves to freedom leading from 70 to 300 slaves to freedom. Bradford, p. 3. She did this despite the fact that there was a reward offered for her capture. Bradford, p. 43.
- Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, blindfolded himself to avoid seeing his children escape so that he could say, with conviction, that he had not seen them that day. Clinton, p. 96. Mr. Ross had hidden parties of runaways. Clinton p. 114. The scene in which Harriet Tubman provides a rig to transport her elderly parents is accurate. Clinton, pp. 114 & 115.
- The scene in which Harriet Tubman had a vision that the route she had planned to take was blocked by slave-catchers and the men she was leading to freedom were afraid to cross a river; Harriet crossed it first herself – not knowing the depth of the river or if she would be swept away by the current.
- The scene where Harriet threatened to kill one of the members of her party of runaways by pointing a gun at his head if he turned back actually occurred. Clinton, pp. 87 & 88.
- Harriet Tubman carried a pistol and would threaten to use it when necessary. Clinton, p. 90. On one occasion, when a male slave threatened to leave a larger group that Harriet Tubman was taking to freedom and all efforts to persuade him to continue on failed, she confronted him, aimed a revolver at his head saying, “Dead Niggers tell no tales. You move or die.” He continued with the group and in a few days he was a free man in Canada. Braddock, 3; Clinton 91 and footnote 30.
- The character of Thomas Garret, the Quaker station master in the UGRR who helped 2,500 to 3,000 escaped slaves, is real. See generally, Clinton pp. 37, 55, 63-64, 74, 82, 90 – 92, 95, 97, 112, 114. See also, discussion of Garret below.
- Harriet and her husband did pay a lawyer $5 to research her right and that of her relatives to be free, based on the will of one of her owners. Her then current owner Edward Brodess refused to acknowledge her right to be free and this was one of the reasons that she ran away from the plantation. Bradford, pp. 128 & 129; Clinton, p. 28 & 29.
- Harriet was originally named Araminta “Minty” Ross but took on the name Harriet Tubman when she reached freedom. The name Harriet was taken from her mother, Harriet Ross, and the name “Tubman” from her husband, a free black man named John Tubman. Bradford, pp. 107; Clinton, p. 33.
- The preacher, Samual Green, who, in the movie, gives sermons that slaves should submit to their masters but secretly helped runaway slaves connect with the Underground Railroad is based on a real-life freed slave. Braddock p. 42, Clinton, 114. He was eventually sentenced ten years in prison for possession of a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriot Beecher Stowe. Bradford, footnote at pp. 42 & 43; Clinton, p. 114.
- The scene in which Harriet Tubman is with Union soldiers and Union gunboats raiding Southern plantations on the Combahee River actually occurred. Some 750 to 800 hundred slaves from the surrounding plantations rushed the boats to be taken away under the protection of federal forces. Bradford, 98 – 103; Clinton, 164- 171.
Parts of the movie that the filmmakers added to spice up the story.
- All of the slaveholders are fictional – but the rot in their characters shown in the film is reasonably accurate for many slave holders. Even the “best” slaveholder would punish slaves and, if economic necessity required, they would sell them. George Washington, who knew that his actions towards slaves would be examined for hundreds of years to come and would stand as a model for the best of the South, kept his slaves in bondage and only freed them at his wife’s death. He did provide them with a trust fund to assist in the transition to freedom.
- The black slave-catchers are fictional so far as we know.
- The character of the woman who ran the boarding house and became Harriet’s friend, is fictional.
Amazing things that Harriet Tubman did that are not shown in the movie, include:
- Without pay, Harriet Tubman served as a nurse for wounded Union soldiers and contrabands for years during the Civil War. She had a reputation for being able to cure dysentery. She bravely ministered to soldiers and contrabands with small-pox and malignant fevers although she had never had the diseases, stating that: “De Lord would take keer of her til her time came, an’ den she was ready to go.” Clinton pp. 157 – 158. Quote at Bradford p. 61.
- She was an advisor to John Brown and he called her “General Tubman. She did not accompany him on his raid in Virginia. Braddock, pp. 117 – 119. 133 – 134; Clinton 132 – 135,
- Harriet Tubman was instrumental in at least one mob action to free a fugitive slave under arrest by U.S. Marshalls. See Braddock, pp. 116 – 128 and 143 – 149.
- Harriet Tubman was a suffragist. This is not surprising. Many abolitionists were also suffragists. Clinton: 141, 191-192, and 311-312.
- Harriet Tubman often sought donations and support from wealthy friends and acquaintances, but almost never for herself but for others. She established a home for elderly former claves in Auburn, New York, her adopted town.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Teachers might find it helpful to read to the class or to have the class read the following selection. Ask the class to put themselves into Harriet Tubman’s shoes. For a pdf version of what follows to be printed and used as a handout, click here.
Dr. Martin Luther King was, in addition to being a civil rights activist, a scholar. He had a Ph.D. in Divinity and was well-read in philosophy and history. In his book, Where Do We Go from Here? (1967), Dr. King summarized the findings of historian Kenneth Stampp derived from manuals for slave owners in the American South on how to keep psychological control of their slaves. Note that the term “bondsman” is another word for slave.
First, those who manage the slaves had to maintain strict discipline. One master said, “Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed.” Another said, “The slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order.” Second, the masters felt that they had to implant in the bondsman a consciousness of personal inferiority. This sense of inferiority was deliberately extended to his past. The slaveowners were convinced that in order to control the Negoes, the slaves “had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation.” The third step in the training process was to awe the slaves with a sense of the masters’ enormous power. It was necessary, various owners said, “to make them stand in fear.” The fourth aspect was the attempt to “persuade the bondsman to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and the accept his standards of good conduct.” Thus the master’s criteria of what was good and true and beautiful were to be accepted unquestioningly by the slaves. The final step, according to Stampp’s documents, was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness: to create in them a habit of perfect dependence on their masters.”
Not all slave owners fully complied with this advice and, as shown by Harriet Tubman’s efforts to enforce the will of a former master giving her freedom through her mother and Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery, not all slaves allowed themselves to be completely controlled psychologically. However, this background shows some of the difficulties that all fugitive slaves, including Harriet Tubman, had to overcome in their decision to make the break for freedom.
Moreover, the difficulty in making the decision to run was only the beginning of the obstacles faced by fugitive slaves. Harriet Tubman’s experience is summarized in the following passage from Harriet Tubman’s authorized biography, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, pages 29 – 31 of the 1886 edition.
A slave had heard that Harriet and two of her brothers were to be sold away to the South “very soon, perhaps tomorrow.” At the time, Harriet was between 20 and 25 years old. She and the two brothers decided to make a break for freedom.
The brothers started with her, but [they thought that] the way was strange, the north was far away, and all unknown, the masters would pursue and recapture them, and their fate would be worse than ever before; and so they broke away from her, and bidding her good- bye, they hastened back to the known horrors of slavery, and the dread of that which was worse.
Harriet was now left alone, but after watching the retreating forms of her brothers, she turned her face toward the north, and fixing her eyes on the guiding star, and committing her way unto the Lord, she started again upon her long, lonely journey. . . . For,” said she, ‘‘I had reasoned dis out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have de Oder; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when de time came for me to go, de Lord would let dem take me.”
And so without money, and without friends, she started on through unknown regions; walking by night, hiding by day. . . . Without knowing whom to trust, or how near the pursuers might be, she carefully felt her way, and by her native cunning, or by God given wisdom, she managed to apply to the right people for food, and sometimes for shelter; though often her bed was only the cold ground, and her watchers the stars of night. From Bradford, Moses, 29-31.
Vocabulary of the Underground Railroad:
- Station Master – Someone who provided hiding places and food for fugitive slaves on their way to the North or to Canada.
- Abductor – Someone who went into a slave state and escorted slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman was an abductor.
- Liberty Line – an established route of the Underground Railroad.
- Conductor – Someone who transported or accompanied fugitives slaves from one station of the Underground Railroad to another.
Thomas Garrett – An Example of the Ethical and Humanitarian Resistance to Slavery
Sarah Bradford recounts the following about Thomas Garrett, the white Quaker who allowed his home to be used as a station on the Underground Railroad and aided in the escape of 2,500 to 3,000 slaves. After Harriet Tubman’s escape Garret was one of the Station Masters of the UGRR with whom she worked when she returned to Maryland to lead members of her family and other slaves to freedom. Bradford, p. 44 -46; Clinton, pp. 90- 92, 114.
- He was tried twice for assisting in the escape of fugitive slaves, and was fined so heavily that everything he possessed was taken from him and sold pay the fine. At the age of sixty he was left without a penny, but he went bravely to work, and in some measure regained his fortune; all the time aiding, in every way possible, all stray fugitives who applied to him for help.
- Again he was arrested, tried, and heavily fined, and as the Judge of the United States District Court pronounced the sentence, he said, in a solemn manner: “Garrett, let this be a lesson to you, not to interfere hereafter with the cause of justice, by helping off runaway Negroes.”
- The old man, who had stood to receive his sentence, here raised his head, and fixing his eyes on “the Court,” he said, “Judge-thee hasn’t left me a dollar, but I wish to say to thee, and to all in this court room, that if anyone knows of a fugitive who wants a shelter, and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett, and he will befriend him! Bradford, footnote at pp. 53 & 54.
1. What can we learn from the life of Harriet Tubman?
There is no one correct response to this question. A good discussion will cover the concepts of bravery, persistence (keep on going), ingenuity, and caring for others.
2. Why did the Underground Railroad operate and maintain hiding places for fugitive slaves in Norther states such as New York?
After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 slave-masters and slave-catchers could seize fugitive slaves in any part of the country. Thus, fugitive slaves were only safe in Canada. As a result, the UGRR expanded its operations and included freedom lines through the Northern states to Canada.
3. Tell the class, if students do not already know, that there was a lot of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Mobs of people, white and black, would attempt to rescue fugitive slaves who had been arrested by U.S. Marshalls or seized by slave-catchers empowered to act under the law. (See e.g., See Braddock, pp. 116 – 128 and 143 – 149.). On occasion, people died in these encounters. Juries would not convict people who were clearly guilty of attempting to interfere with the law. People also covertly resisted the law by participating in the Underground Railroad. Compare this to the non-violent direct action of the Indian movement for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi and the U.S. Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Then ask the question, when is violent resistance justified, when is covert resistance justified, and when is non-violent direct action called for. In the discussions bring in applicable current events.
Strong discussions will include the following concepts. Non-violent direct action requires an oppressor class for whom appeals to their better nature and fundamental concepts of fairness may lead to change. Examples are the British public in the case of the movement for Indian independence and the American public in the case of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Violent resistance and subterfuge is required when the resisters are facing people and institutions in the sway of abject evil, such as the Southern slave holders and the Nazis.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Each of the discussions questions can serve as an essay prompt.
- Write an essay about the life of Harriet Tubman describing incidents and characters in the film who were based on real life events and people.
- Write an essay on the lives of one of the following individuals shown in the movie: Thomas Garrett, William Still, Frederick Douglas, Senator/Secretary of State Seward.
- Write an essay on efforts in the North to disobey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
- There was a lot of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Mobs of people, white and black, would attempt to rescue fugitive slaves who had been arrested or seized by slave-catchers under the law. Some people died in these encounters. Juries would not convict people who were clearly guilty of attempting to interfere with the law. Write an essay evaluating the arguments, pro and con, about whether it was right to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and, if so, what form should that resistance have taken? [Optional additional question: Evaluate the question of whether that resistance should have been carried out pursuant to the doctrines of non-violent direct action put forward by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.]
- Write an essay comparing the career of Harriet Tubman to one of the following female social activists who advocated for reforms in American society? Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, and Dolores Huerta. How were they alike and how were they dissimilar.
BRIDGES TO READING
- Harriet Tubman: The Moses of her People, by Sarah Bradford.
- The Underground Railroad, by Coleson Whitehead (This book is in the genre of magical realism and should probably be assigned in a cross-curricular unit with an ELA teacher. The novel requires strong reading skills.)
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- In Earnest, Contrived Biopic ‘Harriet,’ Tubman Is An Action Hero, by Mark Jenkins, NPR 10/31/19
- What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Harriet, Rachelle Hampton, SLATE.COM, 10/31/19
- Harriet Tubman: The Moses of her People, by Sarah Bradford, 1886, G.R. Lockwood & Son, New York; Available in PDF and other format at Smithsonian Libraries.
- Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton, 2004, Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and was last updated on November 16, 2019.