New movie ‘Harriet’ shows Philadelphia as ‘a beacon for enslaved people’

Produced and written by Black women, the film hits theaters on Nov. 1

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Today, most people look forward to the weekend to lounge around, party or finally have time to run errands. In the 1850s, Saturdays were for escaping enslavement.

That was the case for Harriet Tubman, whose life is celebrated in a star-studded new biopic called Harriet, which previewed last week at the Philadelphia Film Festival and begins showing nationwide on Friday, Nov. 1.

Written by Kasi Lemmons and produced by Debra Martin Chase, both Black women, the film explores Tubman’s deep connection to Philadelphia as it recounts her several trips leading victims of American enslavement to freedom.

Tubman’s heroic life as a fighter who led her family, friends and strangers to freedom through a complex network of safe spaces is well known. But there’s much more to Tubman and her pivotal time in Philadelphia than most common retellings reveal, said historian and Tubman biographer Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

“One of the great things about this moment is that [both the film and book] are created by and centered on Black women,” Dunbar told Billy Penn. “I think that our vantage point gives us the opportunity to tell a different kind of story about Tubman.”

The Mt. Airy native is the author of She Came to Slay, an illustrated account of Tubman’s life and legacy. Dunbar is also a graduate of the Germantown Friends School, a Quaker school — and it was Pennsylvania’s Quaker legacy that laid the foundation for Philadelphia to become Tubman’s stomping ground to liberation.

Philadelphia as ‘a beacon for enslaved people’

A religious leader among the pacifist Christian sect called Quakers, Pennsylvania founder William Penn named Philadelphia after a church from the biblical book of Revelation.

The name literally translates to “brotherly love,” but despite his intentions, “[Philadelphia] was actually not very friendly and it was not brotherly,” said Dr. Nilgün Anadolu-Okur, Temple University African American Studies professor and author of Dismantling Slavery.

People who were Quakers in the U.S. did engage in slaveholding, and Penn himself owned people, as did Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. But the religion eventually became one of the first full denominations to move to rebuke the slave trade.

That shift of consciousness came from the top of Philadelphia government, with Penn and Franklin leading the call. Most city and state officials were Quakers, and by the end of the 18th century it became clear “that slavery has a short shelf life in the state of Pennsylvania,” Dunbar said.

After Pennsylvania becomes the first state to outlaw slavery, Dunbar continued, “Philadelphia creates itself as a beacon for enslaved people who were attempting to run away from slavery, particularly in the south.”

Quakers established the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787, and famed abolitionist and Quaker preacher Lucretia Mott helped found the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society in 1833.

That’s the sociopolitical culture Tubman, born in 1822, trudged toward when she finally escaped enslavement in 1849.

‘100 miles to freedom’

Much of Harriet is set in Philadelphia, though it was filmed in Virginia.

In the movie, Tubman is played by British actress Cynthia Erivo. She’s accompanied by historically accurate and creatively imagined activist allies including one such real-life acquaintance William Still, played by East Oak Lane native and Hamilton star Leslie Odom.

In 1800s Philadelphia, William Still was a free Black man who helped fugitive Americans escape enslavement even before Tubman arrived in the city. Born free, Still was an outspoken abolitionist known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Historical accounts and the film’s reenactment show Still as one of the first people Tubman interacts with when she arrives in Philadelphia.

“I don’t know if you know how extraordinary this is but you have made it 100 miles to freedom all by yourself,” Still tells Tubman in Harriet.

Still’s rowhome at 625 Delhi St. was added to Philadelphia’s historic register in March 2018. At the time, preservationists said the believed the marble steps in front of the home were original — the same steps Tubman climbed after her likely months-long trip to freedom.

Tubman later recounted her loneliness in a new city among new people. She decided she’d return to Maryland to save her family and loved ones, but had to earn income. Philadelphia’s underground abolitionist network got Tubman employed as a domestic worker, where Dunbar said she would have been earning the lowest wages one could make at the time.

She lived in a Philadelphia boarding house, and worked in Philadelphia hotels, but because she was on the run, Tubman was protective of her whereabouts, Dunbar said.

Even in recounting her story decades later, Tubman never revealed many of her exact locations. Still, historians know of her close relationship with Still and Mott, and have documented her time at the Johnson House in Germantown during return trips to Philadelphia. Tubman led between 60 to 70 Black people to freedom during her decade-long tenure as a leader on the Underground Railroad.

On the long journey north, Harriet and company stopped at places like Still’s modest rowhome and Germantown’s Johnson House, which was one of the largest in the city at the time. In 1872, Still published the only full, first-person Underground Railroad account.

A piece of Philadelphia’s diverse Underground network

“When we come to Harriet Tubman,” Temple African studies professor Nilgün Anadolu-Okur told Billy Penn, “we have to consider her not as an individual who worked  by herself, but as a member of a network.”

Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad network was secretive, diverse and very close-knit. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which legislated that people who had escaped enslavement must be returned to bondage even if they were in a free state, most agents of the Underground Railroad burned the few written accounts of the railroad they had. One exception is William Still’s published account.

The network of abolitionists and activists wasn’t just comprised of Quakers and volunteers, either. Black businessmen James Forten and Robert Purvis, whose historic home had been left in disrepair because of neglect by the current owner, helped fund abolitionist efforts by providing food, clothing and other necessities. The Purvis House at 16th and Mt. Vernon streets also served as an Underground Railroad stop.

Quaker minister Lucretia Mott maintained a network of allies along Broad Street and beyond as it turns into Route 611 that shuttled people seeking freedom to safety.

Ultimately, with the help of this nationwide network, Tubman made the dangerous trek south 19 times, Anadolu-Okur said. It’s impossible to know whether she stopped in Philadelphia each time because of the network’s secrecy.

Tubman did let historians in on the freedom she felt when she first forged toward the City of Brotherly Love.

“When I found I had crossed that line,” Tubman told biographer Sarah Bradford, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

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