One of the forgotten heroes of American history is Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919). Ever heard of her?
After suffering from a scalp disorder that resulted in her losing much of her own hair, Madam Walker created her own specialized hair care products in 1905 and sold them door-to-door. She was an entrepreneur, who established Mme. C.J.Walker Laboratories and Mme. C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and who, in time, established the first black-owned business in America, which caused her to become the first self-made, female millionaire in America.
As she would tell her employees, “…You don’t have to define yourself by your current station in life but only by your vision of who you can become. Today, you see a success. And I hear many of you say, ‘But, Madam Walker, I just don’t have the opportunities you had.” And I respond, ‘Really?’ I was the first freeborn in my family. Orphaned at age seven. Married at fourteen and widowed with child by twenty. I’m a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. From there, I promoted myself to the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground. I got my start by giving myself a start. There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I haven’t found it. If I’ve accomplished anything in my life it’s because I was willing to work hard. You can do something new today. And don’t be too haughty. You can always go to that washtub for a seat.”
She also said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
What an incredible African-American success story! What a remarkable American story! In a way, she sounds just like Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, “Every man must write with his own hand the charter of his own Emancipation Proclamation.” This amazing women was inspired by Booker T. Washington, who “called for black people to lift themselves up by developing skills, working hard, and emphasizing good character” (PBS). As a result, Walker “transcended poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice to become one of the most important businesswomen in America” (PBS). And, moreover, she used her success to bless thousands of people with jobs and donated a great deal of her profits to organizations that worked to improve countless lives all over America.
Unfortunately, this remarkable woman is left out of the history books. Why? Because she proves that self-determination, personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance, and character breed success in a free society. And the values she lived then can still be lived today. All of us, in America, are a minority of one and how we succeed or fail depends on our own efforts. The choice, as always, is ours.
As Booker T. Washington once said, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.”
Written by Joel Killion
Trials are a part of life, and the way we deal with them will determine whether we lead a life of victory or defeat. But no matter what the trial is, the Lord will give us power, even in the darkest of times, through the Holy Spirit to overcome, as Acts 1:8 tells us: “but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you….”
We have this accessible help all of the time. We can count on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). If we will take the time to ask the Lord what to do and say, He will teach us by giving us the answer of how to overcome. He is a ready Teacher; we just have to be ready listeners and doers.
Harriet Tubman was a woman who faced extreme trials in her life and prevailed against all odds. She knew her purpose and she did not stop until it was accomplished. Throughout her life, Harriet’s faith was child-like, her focus remained on the Lord, and she always believed that God would see her through to victory.
We, too, must keep pressing on, just as Harriet Tubman and numerous others have done, who successfully finished the course laid before them. She relied on the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish so much in her life, and we have the wonderful opportunity to do the same.
Harriet Tubman became the most famous and courageous leader of the Underground Railroad, which gave aid to slaves in the South to escape to the free states.
Harriet Tubman, an African-American woman, was born into slavery in 1820 in Bucktown, Maryland. Being a slave was one of the most hopeless situations a human could endure, having no rights, very few privileges, and no freedom. Though many slaves had families, any member of their family could be taken and sold at any time, and they would not even know where they went or if they would ever see them again. Think of the pain these families had to suffer.
Though not all slave owners were cruel to their slaves, and some did try to keep families together, treating them with kindness, there were many owners who daily abused their slaves. Harriet was a slave to the latter kind of owners. But perhaps this is just what it took (having suffered so much) to inspire her to want to help others. She did not waste her trials, but learned from them, so she could in turn help others to escape to freedom.
Harriet had a loving mother, father, five brothers, and six sisters, but her time of being a child ended at age five when she was forced to work in the fields. During her time as a slave, Harriet was beaten numerous times on her back and neck, leaving many scars. She was forced to work in frigid waters looking after her master’s muskrat trappings, and became sick from measles and many bouts of bronchitis, which were never treated, causing her voice to become husky.
But those were not the biggest of her trials. When Harriet was thirteen, she attempted to save another slave from being punished, and was struck in the head with a two-pound iron weight. The impact fractured her skull, and left a dent in her head, scarring her for life. Miraculously, her mother prayed and nursed her back to health after several months. However, she did suffer periodic blackouts and sudden sleepiness from that injury for the rest of her life.
Her owner tried to sell her when she had somewhat recovered, but she was considered damaged goods and no one would buy her. When Harriet did recover enough to function, she began to pray that God would help her get rid of slavery. The accident, though a huge trial in her life, actually caused Harriet’s faith to grow in the Lord.
She had continuous conversation with the Lord and became very close to Him. She knew that somehow God was going to use her to help free slaves, but she also knew that apart from God helping her, she could do nothing, as she was a slave, poor, illiterate, and a female.
As Harriet’s strength began to return, she stayed busy with physical activity. This enabled her to remain alert and not fall asleep so suddenly. When she was able to work in the fields, her father taught her songs and how to stay alive in the woods, both of which would later be very beneficial to her. Harriet grew amazingly strong so her master started to consider her a showpiece. She could cut a half a cord of wood a day, more than most men. She knew this strength was for a purpose, as she would soon discover.
Harriet had significant spiritual gifts. She was gifted prophetically and was often given dreams from the Lord about impending dangers or something that was to happen. While she was young, she kept having a dream about a line that seemed to divide slavery from freedom. She did not know anything about the Mason-Dixon line, but that was what she was seeing. In the dream, she kept seeing people from the North calling her Moses and holding out their hands to her, beckoning her to cross the line.
She would also have dreams about wonderful things that were to happen—such as one about herself flying like a bird over mountains and valleys. She also dreamed about many places she would see later in her escape, which gave her great encouragement from the Lord when she saw them. Harriet had a gift of discernment as well. She could tell if people were for her or against her. All these gifts would prove valuable in the time ahead.
In 1849, Harriet knew it was time for her to escape to the North, when she discovered that she was to be sold, along with two of her brothers, to a Georgia slave trader. They made their plan. Early in the morning Harriet and her two brothers wandered rather idly past the slave quarters and even her master’s gate, while singing a song about going to the Promised Land. No one thought it strange, as she seemed to sing much of the time. Her friends could read between the lines though and knew from her song that Harriet was escaping. When her brothers realized the terrible risks that were ahead of them, they returned home and left Harriet alone. She said, “I ain’t got no friend but You. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble.” And He did. Harriet knew God so well that she had no doubt He would help her.
Everything was against her. Harriet had no money or map, just a small snack from home, and she was now a hunted fugitive. She had heard blacks could live free in Philadelphia or New York, so she decided to escape to one of those cities.
Providentially, Harriet had previously met a Quaker woman in the field close to home, who had offered to help her if she ever decided to escape slavery. This woman was the only one in the world that Harriet knew might help her, so she went there on her first day of escape. Through this woman, Harriet learned about those who could help her through a system of escape called the Underground Railroad. Railroad terminology was used as code words to describe ways of escape, but there was no real railroad. Basically, it consisted of many people using far-reaching signals and codes that helped slaves to escape to the North.
Harriet began her long travel to the North that night along the Choptank River. She followed the North Star when it was in sight, and during cloudy nights, she would feel for moss that grew on the north side of the trees. The Quaker woman gave her directions to a couple’s house, where she arrived in the morning. They immediately gave her a broom to work. Harriet wondered if she had been tricked, but this was just part of the plan. Later that day, the man signaled her to get in the wagon of produce and scoot down low under the blankets. He safely took her to the next destination. This was the beginning of being sent to different people and places for food through the help of the Underground Railroad. She traveled at night, staying off main roads. Finally, she had made it past one state line. Fear had tried to grip her, but she kept her eyes on Jesus, knowing He would keep her safe.
At her stop in Wilmington, Delaware, she met Thomas Garrett, a Quaker shoe salesman, who would later become a fearless partner with Harriet in rescuing slaves. He gave escaping slaves food, money, and shoes. At one point, he was fined so heavily for assisting slaves that he lost everything, but that did not stop him. He still kept helping slaves. It is estimated that Garrett helped with the rescue of between 2,500 and 3,000 slaves.
Through many dangers and narrow escapes, sleeping in haystacks, storage holes for potatoes, and attics, Harriet finally made it across the Pennsylvania line. The following was her first impression of freedom. “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person, now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” Harriet was one of approximately 100,000 slaves who escaped to freedom in the North.
Harriet found places to live and work through the kindness of a man named William Still. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it illegal to help a runaway slave. That was when Harriet decided to join the Underground Railroad because this was where she felt she could be the most help. She was determined to help all blacks be free, as she was amazed how wonderful it was to choose where she worked and lived. She saved most of her wages by living frugally to help with the purpose of freeing slaves.
From the time she began helping slaves to escape in 1851, which included her own parents and family, she personally helped close to three hundred slaves escape to freedom. Harriet often used songs to communicate any information the slaves might need. She would not tolerate any complaining, or thoughts of giving up, from the slaves she was trying to help to freedom. She was known as “Moses” to her people (just as she was called in her dream) because she helped set many free from the bonds of slavery. She faced danger after danger, but her determination and child-like faith in God enabled her to do what seemed impossible. She listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit many times and was directed away from danger.
One time when she was trying to help a group of slaves escape, her heart began to race, which was always a sign to her that there was danger ahead. It was during winter, and they were on a path deep in the woods near the water. Harriet told everyone to get in the water, and obediently everyone braced for the coldness that would shock their bodies. She said later she felt like the Israelites escaping from the Egyptians when they hit that water. It never went above their heads, and as they proceeded in the water, it became shallower. Later, she learned that just ahead was a group of officers who were looking for her and the runaway slaves. They escaped because Harriet paid attention to the Lord and His warnings.
Another time Harriet needed twenty dollars to aid in the escape of her parents. The Lord had told her to go to New York to get the money from a certain man. She told some friends she was going to this man’s office and was not leaving until she got the money. When she told the man she needed twenty dollars, he said she was mistaken, that he wasn’t giving her twenty dollars. She told him: “The Lord’s never been mistaken. Anyhow, I’m going to sit here until I get it!” She did and he gave it to her. That was the kind of determination that Harriet had. When she heard the Lord tell her to do something, she did it, without question.
In another effort to help others escape slavery, Harriet was helping a group to a boat she had planned to take, but had learned it was disabled. They were directed to take another boat, but the clerk would not give her tickets because she did not have a note about being on her master’s business or free papers. He told her to stand to the side until he could deal with her. Harriet took a girl named Tilly to the bow of the boat and began praying. Tilly saw the clerk approaching them and feared they were doomed. Harriet pleaded before the Lord to help them until the man reached them. To their astonishment, the clerk told those who were seeking their freedom that they could come and get their tickets. Harriet was not surprised. She knew it was the Lord who had come to their rescue again.
At one point, a reward of $40,000 was offered for her capture. Harriet would often get someone to follow those who were putting up “wanted” signs for her and other runaway slaves and tear them down. The slave drivers caught up to her one time, when suddenly she had one of her blackouts. They never saw her as she lay sleeping in the field. God had protected her once again. During the many times she aided slaves to freedom, she was never caught, nor did she lose a slave to the Southern militia, as the Lord guarded her every step. Her life embodied the biblical principle in Zechariah 4:6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.”
It was not enough for Harriet to just lead others to freedom from their Egypt; she wanted them to be established in their new Promised Land. She helped them find work and places to live once they were free. During the Civil War, Harriet served as a nurse, scout, and sometimes as a spy for the Union army. After the war, Harriet established a rest home for the poor and elderly. Throughout her life, she helped others to experience true freedom.
Harriet died at the life-fulfilled age of ninety-three. Her life was truly remarkable. No obstacle stopped Harriet from achieving her goal of freeing slaves. It was Harriet’s deep faith in God that not only sustained her, but propelled her to a lifelong service to Him and His people. When she heard the Holy Spirit speak, she acted. Fear did not grip her because she gave her anxiety to the Lord. She never doubted that He would be with her.
Amazingly, she was never bitter toward those who hurt her or persecuted her. She chose to forgive and pray for those who mistreated her. Harriet’s goal was to bring African-Americans and whites together in unity. Even through such a life of trials, she remained cheerful. Life held joy. She brought hope to others through joyful songs and would sing many times, “I’m going to hold steady on You!” She truly did.
God will never ask us to do something that we are not capable of doing. He will prepare us in every way. However, it will take a tremendous amount of faith to walk in the type of calling Harriet Tubman had. For those who believe, all things are possible through God. He will give strength to accomplish the extraordinary.
The trials that we face can become victories on our road to Him, if we choose to overcome them. The Lord speaks in many ways, and those who know Him will hear His voice. He is a sure Guide and Helper. Just as He faithfully helped Harriet Tubman, He will do the same for us. Just believe.
We are now in need of many like her who will help lead their brethren to spiritual freedom, resolving to continue until all are free of the yoke of bondage to sin and evil. We, likewise, need a spiritual “Underground Railroad” that will aid in every way and provide what is needed for those who are risking all in pursuit of the true liberty of the Spirit.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Written by Deborah Joyner Johnson
The material for this article was taken from Harriet Tubman, by Rebecca Price Janney, Bethany House Publishers.
He was eight years old, sometime in the early 1800s, when he was sent as a slave to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Mr. Hugh Auld. As Frederick Douglass wrote in his Narrative, “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity.” But what happened in Baltimore that propelled Frederick so powerfully into “all” his future success? Well, soon after Frederick arrived at the Auld home, Mrs. Auld started teaching him the ABCs, after which he learned to spell small words. But, when Mr. Auld found out about this, he became angry and forbade Mrs. Auld from ever teaching him again, “…telling her, among other things that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read.” He went on to say, in front of young Frederick, “If you give a (n-word) an inch, he will take an ell. A (n-word) should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best (n-word) in the world…if you teach that (n-word) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
These words changed Frederick forever. As he later wrote, “These words sank deep into my heart…I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty–to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Frederick learned that education and slavery are incompatible. So, “Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher,” he said, “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
But how did he learn to read with so much against him at such a young age (between eight and fifteen years old)? Well, as he later wrote, “The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.”
Then, as Frederick stated, “I wished to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass,” from slavery to freedom. And this is how he learned to write (and may I remind you that he did this between the age of eight and fifteen): “The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus–“L.” When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus–“S.” A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus–“L. F.” When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus–“S. F.” For larboard aft, it would be marked thus–“L. A.” For starboard aft, it would be marked thus–“S. A.” I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.”
Of course, true to Mr. Auld prediction, Frederick became “somewhat unmanageable” as a slave as he grew in knowledge and understanding, because, again, as he had learned, “education and slavery were incompatible with each other.” He also said, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.” He understood this from personal experience. For example, when he was eventually transferred to a new plantation, his new master “succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” By his own admission, Frederick was beaten into a beast by whips and rods. His zeal and desire was ripped from him. At times, the numerous whelps on his back from the physical abuse would be the size of a man’s finger. Yet, he did not quit. Instead, in a sense, he resurrected from the dead and then set his gaze anew upon his “pursuit of happiness.” And soon after that he began teaching other slaves to read and write, which set ablaze the fire of freedom in others. (At one time, he had over 40 students.)
Ultimately, his passion for learning, which had liberated his mind, drove him to flee to the north for his freedom where he connected with the anti-slavery movement and soon became a renowned orator, writer, and editor.
In conclusion, as we consider Frederick Douglass’ life, as we ponder all he endured on his trek from slavery to freedom, what can we deduce? What lessons can we learn from his example? That learning is the way to freedom, that personal success is our personal responsibility, that when we “pick ourselves up by our boot-straps” we can create our own straps, and that self-determination and self-interest are powerful forces in the human spirit. When Frederick met hellish opposition, did he call the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), or the government for help? Did he allow institutional slavery and racism to keep him down? When he was beaten with rods and whips, did he relinquish himself to pity-parties or Affirmative Action? Education was Frederick’s ticket out of slavery because it gave him vision which led to incredible freedom and prosperity. He didn’t make excuses or blame others for his troubles. He didn’t wait for favorable circumstances. He didn’t hide behind victimhood or the race card, but used His God-given ingenuity, passion, and persistence to become the self-made man of merit he was born to be.
Note: All quotes were taken from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass.
Written by Joel M. Killion