Libby to Stiehm: Tubman Did Not Say "No" to Brown
On June 24, The New York Times"Opinionator" section featured an interesting piece by Jamie Stiehm, a journalist and author of a forthcoming book on the abolitionist Lucretia Mott. Stiehm writes about the "parallel lives" of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both of which emerged as anti-slavery giants after escaping from the eastern shore of Maryland. Steihm notes that while Tubman became a freedom fighter, Douglass became an orator--"They were as night and day," Stiehm writes, adding:
But their lives continued to run parallel. In 1859 Douglass and Tubman were both asked, independently, by John Brown to take part in his failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown regretted not having Tubman fighting on his side; not for nothing did he call her “General Tubman.” Both she and Douglass, who was close with some of the “secret six” who provided funds to Brown, refused his entreaties — and likely saved their own lives.1
"Articles that isolate John Brown from his true support among African Americans, among whom Harriet Tubman is justly counted, feed the terrorist frenzy."
In response, Jean Libby submitted a response to the Times, expressing particular criticism of Stiehm's characterization of Tubman as having "refused [Brown's] entreaties." In a personal email, Libby writes: "Articles that isolate John Brown from his true support among African Americans, among whom Harriet Tubman is justly counted, feed the Terrorist frenzy."2 Her response, published on June 25, extends the point of Tubman's clear support of John Brown:
There is documentation from Douglass himself that he did not support the raid at Harpers Ferry, and from African Americans in Philadelphia and in his group that raided the Federal arsenal that Brown had repeated meetings during the summer of 1859 to attempt to change his mind.
Tubman told her biographer Sara Bradford in 1860 that she was delayed in reaching John Brown in October 1859 because of illness, but she was close enough to guide several local slaves who supported Brown in escaping to Canada in two months later, in January 1860. This is supported in contemporary newspaper accounts as well.
James Montgomery, who guided by Harriet Tubman to raid plantations on the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863, was directly involved with John Brown in Kansas. He came to Pennsylvania with a group who tried to organize a rescue of Brown in prison in November, 1859, which Brown refused saying he was 'worth much more to the cause of ending slavery now to die.'
I submit this documented evidence of Harriet Tubman's active support of John Brown shows that the author of this commentary (and/or later biographers) are incorrect in stating that she refused to join him at Harpers Ferry.
My published work includes Black Voices from Harpers Ferry; Osborne Anderson and the John Brown Raid (1979), and Mean To Be Free: John Brown's Black Nation Campaign (Dept. of African American Studies, UC Berkeley. 1986), and John Brown's Family in California (Allies for Freedom publishers, 2006)."3
1 Jamie Stiehm, “Opinionator: Parallel Lives from the Eastern Shore,” The New York Times (24 June 2011).
2 Libby to DeCaro et al, 25 June 2011. Electronic communication.
3 “Readers’ Comments [No. 5]: Jean Libby,” The New York Times (25 June 2011)