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(Leader: Invite the group to join you in singing the chorus of "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Teach the words and tune, if needed. Tell them that any time during the story they hear you start to sing, they should join in.)
Harriet Tubman did not want to be a slave. She knew it was wrong for one person to own another person as if they were a cow or a horse or a wagon. She knew it was wrong when she was only about seven years old and her mistress whipped her over and over again if the baby cried at night. She knew it was wrong for one person to work and work in the fields or the house all day long without getting any pay. She knew it was wrong for owners to sell children away from their parents, and wives away from their husbands.
Often Harriet thought about freedom. Sometimes at night she would dream that she was flying. In her dream she would come to a big wall that she couldn't pass. On the other side of the wall there were women wearing white, reaching up their arms to help pull her to freedom.
(Leader: Sing the chorus of "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Encourage the children to join in.)
When Harriet was a young woman she learned that she and three of her brothers were about to be sold to a plantation owner in the deep South, where she would never see her family or her husband again. It was time for Harriet to escape from slavery. She knew escaping was very dangerous. Slave catchers would chase after escaped slaves with dogs that would sniff their trail to find them. If you were caught, you would be severely punished, perhaps even killed. But Harriet knew she must be free, so she made an escape plan with her brothers. She did not even tell her husband, John Tubman, a freed slave who did not want to leave their home. Harriet thought he might try to stop her. While he was sleeping, she slipped out of their home at night and met her brothers. As they walked through the woods her brothers became very afraid. It was dangerous to try to escape slavery. Finally her brothers insisted they all go back. Harriet tried to encourage them to keep going, but they refused and brought Harriet back home with them.
Harriet knew now she had to escape by herself. She could not wait any longer or she would be sold. Harriet's father, Ben, had taught her all about the woods. She knew which plants and berries were safe to eat. She knew how to walk silently, without making a sound. She knew how to imitate bird calls. She knew that moss only grows on the north side of trees and how to feel for the moss to help guide her on cloudy nights. Most of all, she knew how to find the Big Dipper, and the North Star so she could follow it north to freedom.
Walking through the woods at night, Harriet only knew one place to go for help: to the home of a white woman who was an abolitionist—someone who believed slavery was terribly wrong and who worked to end slavery. This woman was part of the Underground Railroad—a group of people working together to help slaves escape to freedom. Men and women, both black and white, created "stations" on the Underground Railroad, safe places where slaves would be hidden as they travelled north. Harriet travelled from station to station, walking for hundreds of miles until she finally reached freedom.
Harriet was free! She could earn money for herself. She could buy a house. She could choose whom she would work for. No one could ever whip her again. She could set up a comfortable life for herself and live happily and safely for the rest of her life. But Harriet could not be comfortable knowing there were still more than two million people living in slavery. She knew slavery was wrong. She knew she had to go back and help lead other slaves to freedom—no matter how dangerous it was. Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
For the next eight years, Harriet Tubman went back to the South again and again, leading more than 300 slaves to freedom by following the North Star and walking to safe stations on the Underground Railroad. Pictures of Harriet were posted throughout the South, where she was wanted as a criminal. She had to be very careful to disguise herself so she would not be recognized. Sometimes she dressed in a man's suit, sometimes she dressed like an old woman. Slaves were hidden in barns, in secret rooms, and in churches. They walked, took the train, or sometimes rode in wagons, hidden under blankets or vegetables like potatoes and onions.
The journey to freedom was very difficult. Slaves would get scared along the way and wonder if they should turn back. They were exhausted and often near starvation. Tubman encouraged them by telling stories about the glories awaiting them as free men and women in the North. To keep babies from crying or making noises that might help a slave catchers capture them, Harriet gave them a special medicine which made them sleep and carried them in a cloth bag tied around her waist. For eight years, Harriet Tubman risked her life over and over again because she knew that no man, woman, or child should ever have to be a slave.
Then the Civil War came and when it had ended, slavery was over in the United States. The law had been changed. No longer could any person ever own another person. Harriet lived for many years after that, working for the rest of her life to help the freed slaves begin their new lives. Once, she gave a speech, where she said, "I was a conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say. I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."
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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.
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