Harriet Tubman counts among several figures mentioned and venerated during Black History Month, not only for her more than a dozen trips along the Underground Railroad, but her crucial roles as a Union Army spy and proponent for women’s suffrage in the decades after the Civil War.
Nearly a century after her death, some of Tubman’s descendants have set out to not only to honor her legacy but also tackle the 21st-century systems and attitudes that funnel legions of young Black people into the prison industrial complex — what many consider modern-day slavery.
“Harriet Tubman wasn’t given an opportunity to learn how to read. If she was alive, we know she would want to make sure that people learned,” said Rita Daniels, the maternal great-great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman and co-founder of the Harriet Tubman Learning Center in Powder Springs, Georgia.
Daniels, born in Tubman’s final resting place of Auburn, New York, launched the Harriet Tubman Learning Center (HTLC) in 2015 as part of an effort to squash youth illiteracy and break the school-to-prison pipeline — a term that often defines an academically challenged student’s journey from suspension and expulsion to incarceration.
Since its inception, HTLC has operated as the only Harriet Tubman-themed entity in the United States operated by her family members.
“A lot of our students are reading at low-grade reading levels, so we offer a phonics program, as well as STEM, cultural arts, and youth entrepreneurship,” Daniels said. “If youth have a skill, that’s a bonus for them. We offer so much in our programming for high school dropouts to get back on track. We have to get our kids out of this position that’s making them go to jail.”
Like Tubman and her contemporaries, prison inmates across the country — a significant number of whom are Black — are forced to manufacture products for the U.S. government, corporations, and nonprofits around the clock for little to nothing. This issue became an electoral matter earlier this year when Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that his campaign used prison labor to call voters.
For those serving time in state and federal prisons, the struggle to navigate society starts in school. Experts define fourth grade as the “watershed year” for any student, as reading proficiency determines a young person’s likelihood of entering prison later in life. Data from the Department of Justice designates six out of 10 inmates in the federal prison system as functionally illiterate. More than 80 percent of young people who make contact with the courts also struggle with reading.
During the period of U.S. enslavement, slave owners discouraged reading among those considered chattel — at times severely punishing and killing Africans who made the attempt. After the Civil War, the link between illiteracy and incarceration persisted with implementation of the 13th Amendment and facilitation of sharecropping, chain gangs, and other forms of exploitative labor.
The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1965, counted among three Reconstruction-era amendments that passed at the end of the Civil War. It outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude — except when someone’s convicted of a crime. Experts have credited the 13th Amendment as the precursor to Black Codes and other laws of the late 19th and 20th centuries that limited the movement of newly freed Africans and legitimized the terroristic acts levied against them.
After escaping slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman made several return trips — oftentimes through the night — to guide family members and others to freedom in Philadelphia and other northern cities along the Underground Railroad. In 1950, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act compelled Tubman, who had never lost a passenger, to take people farther north to Canada.
Eventually, Tubman ventured into other aspects of the struggle, assisting John Brown in his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
For her acts of bravery, Tubman gained the name “Moses” and cemented her place in history as an American patriot. In 2016, then-Secretary of State Jack Lew announced the release of a Harriet Tubman $20 bill, scheduled for circulation sometime this decade. Last fall, Focus Features released its critically acclaimed biographical film about Tubman starring Cynthia Erivo.
Throughout much of Black History Month, Daniels and other family members have made appearances at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in Northwest, Philadelphia, Detroit and Mobile, Alabama — all in the hopes of opening branches of HTLC in those cities. They have also embarked on an endeavor to get their beloved ancestor a posthumous U.S. Medal of Honor.
For Kalen Nash, Daniel’s grandson and key facilitator of HTLC activities, preserving Tubman’s legacy has made him more mindful of how he represents himself and his family.
“When my grandmother told me, I was shocked,” said Kalen, 17, who first learned about his connection to Tubman three years ago. “I plan to honor Harriet Tubman’s legacy by keeping the learning center going.
“I want young people to know that Harriet Tubman was an honorable person who helped others,” he said. “I like that she kept going back and forth [on the Underground Railroad] through a bunch of states.”