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Portrait of an African American child, Eatonville, Fla.; A Methodist church, Eatonville, Fla.; Portrait of a man holding a hat; Portrait of Rev. Haynes, Eatonville, Fla. June, 1935. Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Harriet Tubman's Code

Spirituals played an important role for fugitive slaves who sometimes used them as a secret code. One example is illustrated by several episodes in the life of Harriet Tubman as recounted in Harriet, the Moses of Her People, a 19th-century biography by Sarah Bradford based on interviews with this most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, which is available at the Documenting the American South website.

Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah H. Bradford. New York: Published for the author by Geo. R. Lockwood and Son, 1886.

Read the account of Harriet's own escape from slavery (pages 26-28 in the electronic text), where she uses a spiritual to let her fellow slaves know about her secret plans:

she must first give some intimation of her purpose to the friends she was to leave behind, so that even if not understood at the time, it might be remembered afterward as her intended farewell. Slaves must not be seen talking together, and so it came about that their communication was often made by singing, and the words of their familiar hymns, telling of the heavenly journey, and the land of Canaan, while they did not attract the attention of the masters, conveyed to their brethren and sisters in bondage something more than met the ear. And so she sang, accompanying the words, when for a moment unwatched, with a meaning look to one and another:

"When dat ar ole chariot comes,
I'm gwine to lebe you,
I'm boun' for de promised land,
Frien's, I'm gwine to lebe you."

Again, as she passed the doors of the different cabins, she lifted up her well-known voice; and many a dusky face appeared at door or window, with a wondering or scared expression; and thus she continued:

"I'm sorry, frien's, to lebe you,
Farewell ! oh, farewell!
But I'll meet you in de mornin',
Farewell! oh, farewell!

"I'll meet you in de mornin',
When you reach de promised land;
On de oder side of Jordan,
For I'm boun' for de promised land."

Questions to think about:

  • What kind of leave-taking is this song about when it is performed as a hymn - part of religious worship service?
  • What is the coded meaning Harriet communicates to her friends through the song?
  • What is the relationship between these two levels of meaning - one meaning from Harriet and one meaning in church?
  • How is Harriet's escape like a "passing away" from the viewpoint of those she will leave behind?
  • How does the song serve to create a bond that will connect her to her friends even after she is gone?

Harriet draws on the community-building power of the spiritual to add religious and social significance to her departure. Her song reaffirms her place in the slave community, even as she declares her intention to leave it, and at the same time expresses the double faith in salvation that will sustain her on her way.

In a later episode (pages 37-38), when Harriet is guiding other slaves to freedom, she uses a spiritual to reassure them that they have eluded a pack of slave hunters.

At one time the pursuit was very close and vigorous. The woods were scoured in all directions, every house was visited, and every person stopped and questioned as to a band of black fugitives, known to be fleeing through that part of the country. Harriet had a large party with her then; the children were sleeping the sound sleep that opium gives; but all the others were on the alert, each one hidden behind his own tree, and silent as death. They had been long without food, and were nearly famished; and as the pursuers seemed to have passed on, Harriet decided to make the attempt to reach a certain "station of the underground railroad" well known to her; and procure food for her starving party. Under cover of the darkness, she started, leaving a cowering and trembling group in the woods, to whom a fluttering leaf, or a moving animal, were a sound of dread, bringing their hearts into their throats.

How long she is away! has she been caught and carried off, and if so what is to become of them? Hark! there is a sound of singing in the distance, coming nearer and nearer.

And these are the words of the unseen singer, which I wish I could give you as I have so often heard them sung by herself:

Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
Grief nor sorrow, pain nor anguish,
Shall no more distress you dere.

Around Him are ten thousand angels,
Always ready to obey command;
Dey are always hovering round you,
Till you reach de heavenly land.

Jesus, Jesus will go wid you,
He will lead you to his throne;
He who died, has gone before you,
Trod de wine-press all alone.

He whose thunders shake creation,
He who bids de planets roll;
He who rides upon the tempest,
And whose scepter sways de whole.

Dark; and thorny is de pathway,
Where de pilgrim makes his ways;
But beyond dis vale of sorrow,
Lie de fields of endless days.

The air sung to these words was so wild, so full of plaintive minor strains, and unexpected quavers, that I would defy any white person to learn it, and often as I heard it, it was to me a constant surprise. Up and down the road she passes to see if the coast is clear, and then to make them certain that it is their leader who is coming, she breaks out into the plaintive strains of the song, forbidden to her people at the South, but which she and her followers delight to sing together:

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Oh Pharaoh said he would go cross,
Let my people go,
And don't get lost in de wilderness,
Let my people go.

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

You may hinder me here, but you can't up dere,
Let my people go,
He sits in de Hebben and answers prayer,
Let my people go!

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

And then she enters the recesses of the wood, carrying hope and comfort to the anxious watchers there. One by one they steal out from their hiding places, and are fed and strengthened for another night's journey.

And so by night travel, by signals, by threatenings, by encouragement, through watchings and fastings, and I may say by direct interpositions of Providence, and miraculous deliverances, she brought her people to what was then their land of Canaan; the State of New York.

Questions to think about:

  • What is the literal and figurative levels of meaning in this song?
  • How does this spiritual fits the circumstances of a narrow escape from slave hunters?
  • To what extent is it a signal and celebration of their escape?
  • To what extent a prayer of thanks for their escape?

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