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Conversations with Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery in the United States in about 1820, Harriet Tubman gained international fame for her daring escape from enslavement to the northern states of the United States and even more for her repeated returns into the dangerous environments where slavery still existed in order to recue dozens of family members, friends and others. As the dangers to escaped slaves increased, Tubman moved her base to St. Catharines, Ontario in 1851 and from there continued her work of rescue; during the American Civil War, she served the Union Army and after the war, she established a home for the aged in New York state.

The Harriet Tubman Institute celebrates the life and spirit of Harriet Tubman. As an anti-slavery advocate and activist she confronted some of the most powerful forces in North America during her lifetime. As an active participant during the war, she fought for the freedom of all persons of African descent who continued to be enslaved or who experienced curtailed freedom. As a woman concerned about the lives of women, she spoke out about women’s rights; and her concerns for the most vulnerable persons in society led to her care for the elderly. We believe that she captures the spirits of resistance, resiliency and restoration that mark the lives of many persons of African descent and we are honoured and humbled to have her as our “mentor”.

Due to the multifaceted and complicated life of Harriet Tubman, we believe she represents an ideal icon for “conversations” about the past, present and future of persons of African descent. More precisely, we think that it is time for those conversations to focus on the experiences of Africans and their descendants in Canada, whether they are descendants of the enslaved persons who occupied this space between the 17th and 19th centuries or the various groups of free black settlers who journeyed to areas in eastern, central or western Canada or those whose more recent migrations from all over the United States, Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean have contributed to this place called Canada. We intend to take the “conversations” beyond Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad and to explore the historical and contemporary experiences of persons of African descent in Canada, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Through a process of “historical imagination”, in July 2010, the SPACE Initiative launched a programme to “talk” to Tubman about historical and contemporary issues affecting African Canadian communities in the GTA. Using Tubman’s life as a prism, the “conversation” with her covered, but was limited to, issues related to slavery (historical and contemporary representations), issues of gender (within/outside of the Black communities) and the concerns of elders (care of elders, the memories of the elders).

An undergraduate student, Shiemara Hogarth, who was also associated with the Harriet Tubman Institute “became” Tubman for these conversations. Shiemara researched Tubman’s life extensively, created a narrative and a replica of Tubman’s iconic dress and presented Ms. Tubman in a variety of contexts. In July 2010, she “became” Tubman during the inaugural Harriet Tubman Student Summer Programme (8th July 2010), in September 2010, she presented Tubman to the 13th Annual US/Canadian Genealogy Conference (Buxton, Ontario on 3rd September 2010) and again at the start of the second Harriet Tubman Student Summer Programme (4th July 2011).

On all of these occasions, the narrative about Tubman’s life inspired a rich dialogue about the experiences of persons of African descent in Canada. We look forward to maintaining and extending the programme and believe there is a model here which can be applied in other contexts.