Editor’s note: Launching Tuesday, Feb. 1, and culminating on March 10, the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project pays tribute to this feminist icon with a special commemorative issue through Ms. online and in print. Explore the interactive groundbreaking site here.
Before the pandemic, Ernestine Wyatt was quite open to receiving hugs from strangers. Random people at events honoring her three times great aunt Harriet Tubman simply wanted to touch someone “who has her DNA.”
“It meant so much to them,” Wyatt said. “But I always told them, why are you focusing on me? I didn’t do anything!”
Wyatt, who resides in Washington, D.C., is just one of scores of living descendants of the legendary Harriet Tubman. It is believed Tubman did not have biological children of her own, and she adopted a baby girl named Gertie when she was already middle-aged in 1874. This adopted daughter died relatively young, but Tubman also helped to raise her siblings’ children and grandchildren.
Tubman was the fifth of nine children born enslaved to Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin “Ben” Ross in Dorchester County, Md. She rescued her parents and some of her siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews from the clutches of chattel slavery. Their descendants thus have a special connection to “Aunt Harriet.”
Wyatt is especially focused on preserving Tubman’s national memory, a passion that comes from her familial ties. Her great-great grandmother Anne Marie Ross Stewart—still an infant when her mother Soph, Tubman’s sister, was sold further South into slavery—was rescued from Eastern Shore Maryland and resettled in Canada. Wyatt has been advocating for a Harriet Tubman Day and has pushed for the accelerated release of the planned Tubman $20 redesign. She more recently appeared at a New Year’s event this year at the Women’s Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, which honored Tubman’s bicentennial with 200 bell tolls. Wyatt was given the honor of ringing the first bell—a tribute resulting from her efforts in urging the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps to induct Tubman into its Hall of Fame as a full member and not just an honorary one, which occurred in 2021.
“It was just so wonderful,” Wyatt said about the bell-ringing event. “One woman told me she went into the military because she was inspired by Aunt Harriet’s service during the Civil War. Two of the African American women there were tearful as they told me how hard it is for them and how they understand what happened to Aunt Harriet. She still resonates today.”
“I realize people are looking for connections,” Wyatt continued, discussing the strangers who have reached out to her. “But I myself did not connect to Harriet Tubman until I was much older and read more about her. I now connect with her through her faith. I think about all that she did and how much she trusted in God.”
Another of Tubman’s descendants, Judith G. Bryant of Auburn, N.Y., would prefer people attempt deeper connections than simply attach to the celebrity status of a heroic icon from the past.
“People say she was fearless,” Bryant said. “She was not fearless, but she did what she had to do because she had great courage. This heroic celebrity that people surround her with removes the humanity of what she did. She was human just like the rest of us. But we’ve elevated her beyond that, and that kind of worries me.”
Bryant, who is descended from Tubman’s brother William Henry Stewart, Sr.—one of the brothers she rescued from Eastern Shore Maryland on Christmas Day in 1854—still lives in the same house built by his son, her great-grandfather William Henry Stewart, Jr. Tubman’s brothers had changed their surname in freedom to Stewart and had moved from St. Catherines, Ontario, to Auburn, where Tubman had settled with her family after purchasing a house there in 1859. Subsequently, Bryant views Tubman solely as a regular family member and not as a national icon.
“Harriet Tubman is like a stage name for me,” Bryant said. “That’s not who she was to herself or to her family here. In Auburn, she was Mrs. Davis [after marrying her second husband Nelson Davis]. The public has no clue about who she really was as a person, as a member of our family.”
What about those African Americans who revere Tubman as an “ancestor”?
“I say, go find your own family,” Bryant challenged. “You already have an ancestor, everybody does—but leave mine alone!”
Bryant says this half in jest, realizing that, for many African Americans, tracing their family roots—until recently with the advent of DNA tests and the recovery of historical records—was difficult precisely because of how chattel slavery ruptured family ties throughout its years of practice in this country. While Tubman rescued some of her siblings, she had already lost three sisters to the auction block, and she herself escaped from slavery before she was sold further South.
“That’s the problem with slavery,” Bryant acknowledged. “They took our identities in total and any links we might have had to find out who we are.”
She was not fearless, but she did what she had to do because she had great courage. This heroic celebrity that people surround her with removes the humanity of what she did. She was human just like the rest of us.Judith G. Bryant, descendant of Harriet Tubman
In the wake of emancipation, formerly enslaved African Americans did what they could to reunite with loved ones sold away from them—with only a few who were successful. Perhaps this is why Black folks are given to referring to each other as “sister” or “brother,” a lingering effect of fostering possible family connections. Many newly freed people also married in droves and did what they could to build stable families that were denied to them under chattel slavery.
Tubman, of course, acted like many in her generation when she opened her home to extended family and community members (she met her second husband while he was a boarder in her home), and she cared for both children and elders throughout her life. Her love of family compelled her to return to slavery to rescue others, and it propelled her in her later years to open a home for aged and indigent Black people in her community.
Despite this love for family, the descendants that I spoke to all claim that their own families rarely spoke of Tubman, and some didn’t even know of their familial ties to her until they matured into adulthood.
The Butlers, who reside in Schenectady, N.Y., and in Boston, recall that their elder family members were often silent about the past and about Tubman. They are descended from James Stewart (né Benjamin Ross, Jr.), another of Tubman’s brothers who was rescued Christmas 1854.
“Back in those days, I think they were a little ashamed of being related to former slaves,” said Joan Rebecca Stewart Springfield-Butler, the matriarch of the Butlers. “I didn’t know about being related to her until I was about 36 or 37. I was a little upset because she was in the schoolbooks when I was in school, and there weren’t many Black people in there at that time, and I could have said, ‘Well, I’m related to her.’’’
Her son, Alan G. Butler, Sr., also wishes he had known about his connection to Tubman at an earlier age since he learned about “Aunt Harriet” as a teenager.
“I kind of gravitated toward Harriet Tubman stories in elementary school,” Butler said. “So, I was kind of upset that they didn’t tell me from day one.”
Even so, Wyatt, who did know of her connection to Tubman, remembers how her schoolmates didn’t believe her when she told them she was related to “Aunt Harriet.”
“I remember being silent after that,” Wyatt admitted, recalling how they laughed at her.
I didn’t know about being related to her until I was about 36 or 37. I was a little upset because she was in the schoolbooks when I was in school, and there weren’t many Black people in there at that time, and I could have said, “Well, I’m related to her.”Joan Rebecca Stewart Springfield-Butler
Interestingly, Wyatt says her family didn’t talk much about Tubman either. Her grandmother, Alyda Gaskin Stokes Chaffin, remembered stories of how Tubman used to fall asleep suddenly (one of the signs of her epileptic seizures) but not much else.
“My grandmother said it was too close to the time that we were set free,” Wyatt said. “She said that life was about surviving and going from day to day, and that’s what they chose to focus on and not on what happened before. So that was the end of that conversation. I didn’t go any further with it. I wish I had asked her more before she died!”
Bryant too admits that her family created a wall of silence around this past.
“My mother said it was too painful,” Bryant said. “They didn’t want to talk about it. I mean if you think about it, most families and kids don’t know their family stories because they didn’t talk about them.”
Bryant at least learned that her grandmother, Alida Stewart Johnson, knew Tubman intimately and that she and other family members took care of her when she was ill and needed to be hospitalized. Her mother, Gladys Stewart Bryant, was seven years old when Tubman died.
“I knew we were related,” Bryant said. “But I didn’t know she was famous. I didn’t know what she had done. We didn’t want to be concerned with slavery, so we didn’t talk about it.”
Ironically, there are those today who are all too eager to also not talk about slavery, who are insistent that Black communities “get over it,” not knowing that those African Americans who were only one generation removed from slavery were just as eager to “get over slavery,” which they might have happily forgotten were it not for the anti-Black racism that festered well after chattel slavery was outlawed, solidifying post-Reconstruction with the advent of Jim Crow segregation laws and the de facto segregation practiced across the nation.
These racial struggles kept African Americans perpetually focused on the present, and their families shrouded the past in silence, as Toni Morrison illustrated with Beloved, her deeply haunting novel about slavery. Moreover, filmmaker Julie Dash dramatized the tensions within families during the turn of the 20th century in her film and subsequent novel Daughters of the Dust as a new generation wanted to modernize and leave the slave past behind. Butler suggests a similar dynamic in his family.
“When I talked to my grandfather about it,” Butler said, “what he said was they didn’t talk a lot about Harriet and slavery because they wanted to be the ‘New Negroes’ and leave all that other stuff behind.”
Leaving this past behind meant modernizing in a cosmopolitan city like Boston and “lightening” the race by marrying an Irish immigrant woman, as Butler’s great-grandfather Elijah Ross Stewart had done, despite being a “favorite nephew” of Aunt Harriet.
Things changed, however, with the civil rights movement when Black people began to reclaim their past as a source of pride instead of shame. With such reclamations, the silence slowly broke.
“My father told me that he was 13 when [Aunt Harriet] died,” Springfield-Butler said, referring to Elijah’s mixed-race son Robert Stewart. “He remembered her sitting at the table and talking and falling asleep. And then she picked up right where she left off when she woke up. That’s all I remember. We had a room in my grandfather’s house that my uncle was living in, and the room was empty except for a Bible and gun. I once asked whose they were, and they said, ‘Oh, a relative.’ I had no idea that they were Harriet Tubman’s! And then my uncle lost them when he moved from that house to another house.”
In these ways, the descendants are piecing together the remnants of the past and understanding more about Tubman.
Wyatt, who remembers fighting as a student just to get African American history added to the curriculum, realizes just how political the past has always been, and she is doing her part to ensure Tubman is elevated in our national consciousness. She believes the Tubman $20 will help with this. As different as the descendants are—Wyatt is fully involved with her church and relishes being a mother and grandmother, while Bryant is “last of her line” reveling in her independence and world travels—they are all active in their communities and energized by the prospect of having Tubman on currency.
“There are some people that feel, because we were once a commodity and there was an exchange of money, that it is an insult for her to be on the money,” Wyatt said. “But I want people to look at it in a different way. All the people that are on the money, first of all, they are white, they are men, and they did something that helped move the country forward. The union that we have today, Aunt Harriet helped to preserve it. She also took her own money and helped to set up a washhouse. She taught the newly freed how to transfer those skills they were forced to perform, to now do it for themselves, how they can do it, and who they can market it to. My God, what a mind she had!”
Bryant agrees: “I think of the $20 as a way to keep her moving in the world. It keeps her in motion. And I mean subconsciously, eventually that will seep into the national consciousness just like the rest of the figures on our coins.”
Of course, Bryant, who is in her 80s, hopes she’ll still be alive to see this happen and struggles to stay optimistic about the Tubman $20 and the future in general.
“What has to happen is we must get away from the old slogans around her,” Bryant said. “We need new slogans that encapsulate the essence of what she is and did as a guideline. What’s the new watchword? We are witnessing slavery in many forms throughout the world. My advice: Don’t own anybody and don’t let anybody own you. Seek your own freedom, set yourself free, and when you do, take somebody else with you.”
She has learned Aunt Harriet’s lessons well.
The essay series for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is as follows:
Michelle D. Commander, “Let Me Not Forget: Harriet Tubman’s Enduring Speculative Visions” | Feb. 2
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Harriet Tubman, Astronomer Extraordinaire” | Feb. 3
The Life of Harriet Tubman
Kate Clifford Larson, “Harriet Tubman: A Life Beyond Myths” | Feb. 8
“Family Portraits of a Legend: Conversations with the Descendants of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 9
Deirdre Cooper Owens, “Harriet Tubman’s Disability and Why It Matters” | Feb. 10
The Untold Stories and Songs of Harriet Tubman
Edda L. Fields-Black, “‘Harriet’ and the Combahee River Uprising” | Feb. 15
A Conversation with Music Composer Nkeiru Okoye | Feb. 16
Maya Cunningham, “The Sound World of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 17
Imagining Harriet Tubman
Amy Corron and Rebecca Rouse, “Why Video Games Education Needs Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 22
A Conversation with Artist Nettrice Gaskins | Feb. 23
Michele Wallace, “Harriet Tubman in the Art of Faith Ringgold” | Feb. 24
Rediscovering Harriet Tubman
Jonathan Michael Square, “The Two Harriets” | March 1
A Conversation with Karen V. Hill, Director of the Harriet Tubman Home | March 2
Douglas V. Armstrong, “Using Archaeology to Rediscover Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom” | March 3
Celebrating a Legacy
Keisha N. Blain, “Justice and the Meaning of the Tubman $20” | March 8
A Conversation with Mary N. Elliott, Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian Museum | March 9
Harriet Tubman Syllabus | March 10
Questions or press queries about the series? Contact [email protected]