The Modern Moses of Heroism and Visions
The article was dictated by Harriet to Mrs. Emma P. Telford and presented to the home by Mrs. Mable Evens, her daughter
Along with Bradford’s two published biographies, Harriet Tubman was interviewed by Emma P. Telford, a fellow Auburnian, who wanted to record Tubman’s story in her own words. The story follows the same path as Bradford’s first narrative and has the same use of heavy dialect. It seems from her introduction that Telford may also have been inspired by the white abolitionist’s romanticized novels of escaping slavery.
She calls Tubman one of the most “remarkable, romantic, and interesting characters in American history,” and says that the following story was “taken from her [Tubman’s] own lips as I have so often heard it, enriched by the picturesque Southern dialect…”
As is the case with Bradford’s biographies, Telford’s use of dialect is heavy and inconsistent. In one passage Tubman says “I tell you sir, you’ll see it, she said, and you’ll see it soon. My people are free! My people are free!” This is written in Standard English, while in the next paragraph Tubman’s line is written in heavy dialect:
“dey change de programme an‘ wanted me to go down and ‘stribute clothes to de contraban’s who were comin’ in to the Union lines day and night.”
Harriet Tubman herself never learned to write, leaving us to consider her voice through the lens of these biographies.
Julia C. Ferris
Read at the banquet of the Cayuga County Historical Society, Feb. 22, 1897
Jane Clark, born Charlotte Harris, escaped slavery and made her way from Maryland to Auburn. She was Tubman’s contemporary, born around the same time and experienced many of the same hardships in her early life. She arrived in Auburn in 1859 and became a live-in domestic worker for the family of Charles G. Briggs, a cashier at the Auburn City National Bank. City directories and census records show that Clark worked for the Briggs from at least 1861-1865.
During her time with the Briggs, a young local school teacher, Julia Ferris, boarded at the Briggs house. Ferris did not write Clark’s story until 1897, suggesting she knew Clark for over 30 years. Ferris’ story tells of Clark’s escape from slavery. She uses fewer direct quotes from Clark than Bradford did of Tubman, but the use of dialect is similar, if not as pronounced.
Jane Clark was born to enslaved parents in Maryland around 1822 and was raised by her grandmother until she was seven or eight years old. She was then taken by plantation owner William Compton for payment of a debt. When Compton died, Jane was hired out to other plantation owners until Compton’s son turned 21 and recalled all his enslaved men and women.
After enduring several beatings, Jane “determined to escape or die in the attempt.” In 1856, Jane was able to escape to a cabin in Maryland with the help of her brother, his friend Brother Garner, and several white sympathizers. She remained in hiding in the cabin until 1857 when her brother obtained forged passes to travel to Washington D.C. to witness the inauguration of James Buchanan. He was able to travel on to Auburn in 1857, but Jane was forced to stay in Washington for two years until an opportunity to travel further north presented itself. She finally arrived in Auburn in 1863 and married Henry Clark, an official in Auburn’s A.M.E. Zion Church.
Ferris’s retelling of Clark’s story is done mostly in Ferris’ voice, however there are a few passages containing direct quotes from Clark, which Ferris transcribes in dialect. When recording Clark’s relief after being questioned by a ticket agent on a train from Baltimore, Ferris writes “When I got that ticket in this yer han’ seems like as if stones was lifted off my head and shoulders. I had prayed ev’ry step of de way from Washington to Baltimo’ an I thanked God ev’ry step of de way from Baltimo’ to New York.” While Ferris’ use of dialect is not as pronounced as those used by Tubman’s biographers, she still falls into the use of eye dialect, such as in “ev’ry.”
“Her speech, though not always “twisted threads of gold and steel,” generally leaves no one in doubt as to her meaning.” – Julia Ferris on Jane Clark