"Harriet" Tubman's Ties to New Jersey

Aug 1, 2019

"Harriet" debuts in November
Credit Focus Features

Get ready for the November debut of the Focus Features film, Harriet, based on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

The movie stars Cynthia Erivo (Broadway's The Color Purple) and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Broadway's Hamilton)

In preparation of the movie release, WBGO’s Marcellis Counts spoke with two local historians who have spent time concentrating on slavery in New Jersey and its ties to the Underground Railroad.

James Amemasor and WBGO's Marcellis Counts at the New Jersey Historical Society
Credit New Jersey Historical Society for WBGO

James Amemasor of the New Jersey Historical Society is working on a new project that focuses on fugitive slave ads in New Jersey newspapers from 1777 to 1808.

"If you want to know what slave owners had to say about enslaved property the best source is the runaway advertisement.  That's when they described then from head to toe, their hair texture, their skin color and everything about them."

Amemasor says Harriet Tubman would probably have been able to help more people through the Underground Railroad if she was able to convince them they were enslaved people and that freedom was possible.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Richardson a local historian who focuses much of his work in Paterson, says the city of Newark played a key role in Tubman's story.

"The Underground Railroad is really the first civil rights movement in this country and Harriet Tubman was most certainly a big part of that.  She does come through Newark and she stays and has been harbored at the First Presbyterian Church on Broad Street.  It just goes to show you how historic that church was and the legacy of freedom that went on in that church in downtown Newark."

Jimmy Richardson continues to do much of his research on the Underground Railroad, especially in Paterson.
Credit Jimmy Richardson

Richardson says Tubman's leadership skills were unmatched.

"She became an officer in the Union Army, a nurse, a cook and she also used her knowledge with medicine to aid the Union soldiers and runaway slaves.  I'm sure when you were with Harriet Tubman you felt safe because she was so handy.  She was a brave woman."

Harriet is directed by Kasi Lemmons, who wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard.  Jazz  trumpeter, composer, and educator Terence Blanchard provides the music for the biographical film.

Click above to hear the feature from WBGO Media Fellow Marcellis Counts.