WASHINGTON — It was almost a spiritual moment: The living descendants of the great Americacn abolitionist Harriet Tubman seeing, for the first time, her hymnal – now housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"When we say she was an icon, she was a real icon," Geraldine Copes-Daniels, Tubman’s great-grandniece, said. "There were many women that went through many things, even men, and did many things for America, but Aunt Harriet went from slavery to a responsible person."
At 87, Copes-Daniels is Tubman’s oldest living descendant. She traveled to D.C. with her daughter, Rita Daniels, to see Tubman’s hymnal on display and to honor the memory of what Tubman did for her people. WUSA9’s Delia Gonçalves was the only reporter in town invited to take the trip with them.
Tubman, known as the Moses of her people, led some 300 slaves to freedom after first making her own escape at age 29. And she did it despite never learning to read or write.
“She didn't have a formal education, but she was educated, very highly educated from the standpoint that she knew the stars, she knew science, she knew technology because she could build things,” Daniels said. “Harriet Tubman was a woman who showed great strength amidst hardships we can never imagine. She was an icon who can still teach us determination despite our own struggles.”
Learning from Harriet Tubman's descendants
The hymnal isn’t just an artifact of Tubman’s life. The spirituals contained within were lifelines for enslaved Africans – melodies that not only carried messages of faith, but codes to freedom. The hymnal made its way to the Smithsonian’s collection thanks to a donation from historian Charles Blockson, who acquired it as a bequest from Tubman’s great-great-niece, who died at the age of 92 in 2008.
"It means she's still alive," Copes-Daniels said. "She was one of the greatest. She was an icon and she still lives through us."
The Danielses say Tubman’s name is widely used, but often not attached to descendants. They are doing their part to keep their ancestor’s legacy alive through the Harriet Tubman Learning Center in Atlanta. The non-profit helps educate under-served children – teaching them not just how to read, but how to “get back up and keep going” when they fall down.
“That was what Harriet Tubman did,” Daniels said. “She made it 92 years. She died of pneumonia. She didn't die by a slave catcher and she didn't go to jail. They had bounties on her head, but guess what? They still didn't get her.”
“She used to say, ‘Keep going.’ That was her word,” Copes-Daniels said. “Keep fighting with courage and faith.”