Harriet Tubman was born enslaved by a Maryland plantation owner. Hardships and mistreatment by her enslaver were her existence until the day she decided that being free was all that was important to her.
When Tubman escaped from Maryland to be a free person, she became part of a network of support for other freedom seekers, called the Underground Railroad.
Tubman would use commonly known hymns from Christian worship services to communicate with enslaved people. According to Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, each song had a hidden meaning for escape and freedom. Tubman knew many songs from memorization. It was illegal for an enslaved person to learn to read and write or own a book.
Harriet Tubman lived her life to help others be free from enslavement. After the emancipation and prohibition of slavery in the United States in 1865, Tubman continued to be a role model and spokesperson for equal rights.
Tubman died in 1913 at the age of 91, in Auburn, New York. The few things in her estate went to family. The hymnal was given to Tubman’s great niece, Eva S. Northrup. Northrup then gave the hymnal to her daughter Meriline Wilkins.
Wilkins died at age 92 in 2008. The hymnal was then acquired and donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Notes for Teacher
Emphasize to students that Tubman did not know how to read or write. She knew the songs from memory.
Why is it important that Harriet Tubman owned a book?
What kind of symbol was the hymnal for Harriet Tubman?
How are songs used today to help people communicate with each other?
What do songs communicate to you?
What book is important to you? Why did you choose that book? Tell the story of why that book means something to you.
1. Show students a songbook, or book from your personal library that has meaning for you. Explain why the book is important to you personally.
a. Why is this book important?
b. Who gave you the book?
c. What did you learn from this book?
d. Would you share this book with someone else? Why?
2. Each person has something that they value above other possessions because of the special memories it triggers or makes them feel when they hold it, or think about it.
3. Show students the image of Harriet Tubman and then, show the picture of the hymnal.
4. Next, have students do “See, Think, Wonder” using the images of the hymnal. In small groups they can share their wonders. Combine smaller groups into larger groups so students can share their ideas.
5. Have students listen to the video “Secret Lives of Objects: Harriet Tubman’s Hymnal”
6. Students then complete the “Let’s Write” assignment on their own. Sharing their writing is the decision of the educator.