Harriet Tubman leads the audience in singing the song “Angels Watching Over Me.” (Photo by Betsy Allen)
History came alive during the Putnam County Homecoming as abolitionist and social activist Harriet Tubman gave a presentation at the Winfield Community Center. Harriet, portrayed by History Alive presenter Ilene Evans, told her story through a combination of spoken narrative and spiritual songs.
Harriet Tubman was born on a plantation in Maryland in the early 1820’s. When Harriet was a child, she was hit in the head by a metal weight which an overseer had thrown at another worker. After she recovered from the injury, she suffered from headaches and seizures which caused her to fall into a sleep-like state. The owner of the plantation was an unscrupulous man, selling off members of Harriet’s family and continuing to enslave them even when they should have been manumitted according to the final wishes of former owners. Harriet resented those who enslaved her, and she dreamed of escaping. She found comfort and inspiration from the stories of the Bible, especially the account of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.
The highlight of the lecture was a dramatic retelling of Harriet’s escape into Pennsylvania which kept audience members on the edge of their seats. People who were sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved tried to do whatever they could to assist them in fleeing to safety, and so began the Underground Railroad, a vast network of safe houses and secret routes. As Harriet traveled from one Underground Railroad station to the next, the slave catchers were hot on her trail. She had many close calls, but fortunately, she managed to elude her pursuers and arrive safely in Pennsylvania. Later, she returned to Maryland to help the rest of her family escape from slavery.
As is the tradition of History Alive presentations, the first part of the lecture was conducted in character, and was followed by a question-and-answer session with the historical personage. Towards the end of the lecture, Evans broke character to discuss details which Harriet Tubman would not know.
Ilene Evans, a communications professor at Fairmont State University, does in-character lectures as part of the West Virginia Humanities Council’s History Alive program. Harriet Tubman is one of several influential women whom she portrays, which include Memphis Tennessee Garrison, an African American activist in West Virginia during the Jim Crow Era; educator and suffragist Coralie Franklin Cook; and other historical figures. Evans is also the artistic director of Voices From The Earth, a historical theater arts organization based in Tucker County. The goal of Voices From The Earth is to preserve stories in danger of becoming lost, especially those of African Americans.
While the real Harriet Tubman never came to Putnam County, there were at least two stations along the Underground Railroad in Winfield and Eleanor.