October 20, 2021

Stories of slavery

Harriet Tubman re-enactor embodies drive for freedom

Todd R. McAdam/contributing photographer

Harriet Tubman, as portrayed by Maggie Moore-Holley, describes a life of slavery, struggle and freedom Monday at the YWCA in Cortland. The event was rescheduled from Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but still drew dozens of children and nearly 100 adults.

The questions a child would ask of Harriet Tubman:
• Is there still slavery? “It may not be the same type of slavery, but there are still slaves. … There are still people in the world who want to make money off of other people. “
• Why is there slavery? “It has to do with greed, honey.”
• What’s a master? “A master is someone who owns another person. He can sell you. And then you have a new master.”

Harriet Tubman, who died in Auburn in 1913, visited the Cortland YWCA on Monday, brought by the research and acting talent of re-enactor Maggie Moore-Holley of Rochester for a Martin Luther King Day celebration re-scheduled from January because of poor weather.

Moore-Holley, who has played Tubman for nine years, confessed that she didn’t initially think she could play the role of an escaped slave who returned 13 times to Maryland to bring 70 other people — including most of her family — to freedom, mostly in Canada.

“I read up on Harriet and said, yes, I can be Harriet,” Moore-Holley said. “Harriet is one of the greatest people — especially to go back to the land of slavery.”

It was a life lesson, not a history lesson, that Moore-Holley was teaching. “If it’s worth doing, there are going to be obstacles,” she said. “They have to keep going.”

Time obscures much of what is known of Harriet Tubman. She was probably born about 1822 in Maryland, but records of slaves were poorly kept. She escaped slavery in 1849, heading initially to Philadelphia.

Over the next 11 years, Tubman made 13 pilgrimages to Maryland, bringing about 70 escaped slaves with her along the Underground Railroad, which led to Auburn — and possibly through Cortland — several times.

She bought a parcel from then Sen. William H. Seward in 1859 on what is now Route 38 in Auburn, and moved her parents there, eventually settling there herself.

During the Civil War, she joined the Union army, initially as a cook and nurse, but eventually as a scout and spy. She even advised and accompanied troops in an 1863 assault on plantations on the Combahee River in South Carolina, freeing 750 slaves.

After the war, Tubman settled again in Auburn, caring for her parents and taking in boarders. She involved herself in the suffragist movement, lobbying for women’s right to vote. But she never saw it; she died in 1913 in Auburn.

But it was her childhood that Tubman — or Moore-Holley — focused on for the nearly two dozen kids and 100 adults at the soup-and-bread lunch.

“Ain’t no record on me ‘cept the work I do,” she said. “I had a massa. He hired me out. I was ‘bout 6 or 7.”

The childhood job was watching a baby, to play with it through the day, and keep it quiet through the night. A crying baby meant a lashed 6-year-old slave. “She lashes and lashes and lashes and she don’t care where they land.”

“I’m sending you back ‘cause you ain’t never gon’ be nuthin’,” she told the kids.

Tubman told of a child’s work in the fields, retrieving muskrats, and of an injury that left Tubman incapable of working the fields — and on the market to be sold. That’s when she escaped. Moore-Holley weaved many quotes attributed to Tubman into her tale.

And it’s why she returned.

“We run in the winter, when it was cold. Some people had no shoes, no clothes.” Tubman told them. “They get hungry. They get tired. They get scared.”

It’s a lesson she said can be used today: “Some are hungry. Some don’t have a place to live,” she said, looking at the kids. “Some are just tired. We can be there.”

Moore-Holley, or Tubman, spent more time with kids in the day program run when school is out of session before heading back to Rochester.

“I liked her singing,” added 11-year-old Karleigh Gower of Cortland, a rich alto singing a spiritual, “Hold on.”

“Her story was very descriptive,” said Jameson Swab, 11, of Homer. “It was awesome.”