The bronze statue of a woman has just been unveiled at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia. The heroine’s name: Harriet Tubman, a spy for the United States when the nation was torn apart.
Yes, the same enslaved woman who crossed the Mason-Dixon line to freedom but returned to lead her Maryland parents from slavery to freedom. The woman we know as the legendary conductor of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War broke out.
Our past is getting more interesting lately, isn’t it? Sometimes the story is all they ever told you.
In his day, Tubman was called “Moses” in the African American Free and Enslaved People’s Network. Time and time again she sailed on a dozen stealthy escapes above the land of night, pole star and moonlight. The rivers and woods of the Chesapeake Bay region were etched in his mind.
Maryland’s east coast, where Tubman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were born, has been compared to Egypt for its brutal slavery.
But who knew Tubman was a Union spy during the Civil War?
This amazing side of her is revealed, surprisingly, by a secret government agency once known to be “pale, masculine, and Yale.”
Tubman scouted and led a military expedition behind enemy lines in southern South Carolina in 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had given new meaning to the war, as a fight for human freedom – not just for real estate. Lincoln, partly at Douglass’ request, had opened the army to black soldiers.
Small but formidable, Tubman displayed the same set of skills she developed in the 1850s: boldness, strength, disguises and singing in coded messages with her raspy, haunting voice.
To protect his escapes, Tubman already knew how to handle weapons. This had inspired fear in the slave hunters who sought her as their most wanted fugitive. In fact, the new spy statue shows her with a gun hidden in her skirt.
Tubman joined the Union Army, apparently as a cook, nurse, and laundress. But there was much more for her in store.
Tubman’s notable mission was to guide Colonel James Montgomery and 300 black soldiers as they raided plantations, seized crops and livestock, and destroyed and burned a bridge along the Combahee River in South Carolina in June 1863.
Montgomery and Tubman invited hundreds to board their Freedom Union steamers. Tubman raised her voice, cutting through the air as she sang spirituals to runaway slaves.
A Wisconsin journalist present at the scene praised her “for her patriotism, her sagacity, her energy”.
Because Tubman lived so long — until 1913, when she was 91 — her greatness was recognized later in life. His work as a conductor who “never lost a passenger” on the Underground Railroad was a story that could be told after the war.
Queen Victoria of England sent her a beautiful white lace shawl currently on display at the Museum of African American History and Culture. Tubman lived out her days in Auburn, New York, on farmland that Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, gave her.
I saw the harsh land where Tubman grew up and met some of his family.
In contrast, Douglass was born on a wealthy plantation and had the good fortune to learn to read. He rode the freedom train and quickly rose to fame.
Most enslaved people were kept illiterate by law, including Tubman. She neither read nor wrote.
Douglass put the best contrast in an 1868 letter to “Dear Harriet” on her nocturnal travels:
“The difference between us is very marked… I had the applause of the crowd.”
“The midnight sky and the silent stars bore witness to your devotion to freedom and your heroism,” Douglass wrote.
Now Tubman is honored near a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War spy known for saying he regretted having only one life to give for his country. He was hanged by the British.
(To see the outdoor statues, you need a CIA Tour Pass.)
Jim Ellis, who worked for years at the Agency, says the bronze “duet” of Tubman and Hale shows “the promise of E Pluribus Unum (among many, one) extends to the CIA.”
And that’s what progress looks like.
Note: A National Historical Park on the Underground Railroad, named Tubman, is located in Church Creek, Maryland.
— Jamie Stiehm can be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm. For more from Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.