The theme for Black History Month 2011, as suggested by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, is “African Americans and the Civil War.” Noted artist Charles Bibbs has created a series of posters on this theme including one of Harriet Tubman.
Black Women for Wellness is delighted with the inclusion of Harriet Tubman as she is a leading icon of the Civil War and with African American history but also because it offers an opportunity to add dimension her life and work.
Tubman richly deserves recognition for all her exploits during this era. As a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, she is remembered as leading enslaved Blacks to freedom, including forcing the more timid ones to carry on with the journey or face death for turning back; a spy for the Union Army, gathering intelligence from plantations and escaped slaves on the positions and movements of Confederate troops; or leading a group of scouts as part of a raid on the Combahee River to remove torpedoes, destroy railroads and bridges and cut off supplies to Confederate troops in South Carolina.
The role of warrior is but one dimension of “General” Harriet Tubman.
The “General” had another side: health care provider and advocate.
As part of her duties for the Union Army, Tubman was sent to care for members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers after their assault of Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 (the film “Glory” starring Denzel Washington was based on these troops).
Tubman told Sarah Hopkins Bradford, her first biographer, “ … every morning, I’d get a big chunk of ice, put it in a basin, fill it with water, then I’d take a sponge and begin. First man I’d come to, I’d thrash away the flies, and they’d rise … like bees round a hive. Then I’d begin to bathe the wounds and by the time I’d bathed off three or four … [the water] would be as red as clear blood. The I’d go and get more ice … and by the time I got to the next ones, the flies would be round the first ones black and thick as ever.”
Tubman was known during this time as a most effective herbalist, having cured dysentery in an area of Florida where several members of a Union Army regiment were “dying off like sheep.” Her herbal remedy cured the surgeon in charge and the remaining soldiers who had been stricken.
Later, toward the end of the war, Tubman would travel to Virginia to labor in hospitals operated by the government for Black soldiers, and on to Washington, DC to give testimony to the War Department on the conditions the patients were being treated under.
In the remaining years of her life, Harriet Tubman used her home as a shelter for “aged and indigent colored people.”
From the beginning of time Black women have nursed, cared for and tended to the members of our families and communities who were most in need. Our families and our communities believed then that we knew what we are doing – that we would shoulder the task competently.
There’s no reason for our families and our communities to stop trusting us now.
By Janette Robinson Flint
Janette Robinson Flint is the executive director of Black Women for Wellness based in a Leimert Park. She is also a faculty member of Charles Drew University.