The nation knows Harriet Tubman as a freedom fighter and famed abolitionist whose astounding life story has finally made it to the silver screen. But to the Brickler family in Tallahassee, Florida, she’s “Aunt Harriet.” And they have her pistol to prove it.
“The movie showed exactly what we’d always been told,” A.J. Brickler said, lifting the weapon, a single shot, powder-packed gun with a wooden handle and bits of brass filigree.
Tubman, the woman born into slavery nearly 200 years ago, is synonymous with the Underground Railroad, that covert system that assisted as many as 100,000 enslaved individuals in their flight north in the period before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The movie, “Harriet,” tells the story of the enslaved woman born in Maryland as Araminta Ross. She escaped in Maryland in 1849, then returned the next year to help her relatives flee. Under her free woman’s name of Harriet Tubman,she would go on to personally shepherd some 70 men, women and children from slavery’s abomination to new lives in Philadelphia, New York and Canada.
“Harriet” enlarges what we learned in school. We see that Tubman was also a deft abolitionist who worked with John Brown, Sen. William Henry Seward and Frederick Douglass. She was a Civil War scout and spy for the Union army who, because of her knowledge of the land, could report back Confederate movements.
She led an armed expedition in a raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina that liberated 700 people from slavery; she was a nurse in field hospitals, a committed suffragist and, later, an entrepreneur. Tubman even founded a nursing home for poor blacks. She died there in 1913 at the age of 93.
Heroics of ‘Aunt Harriet’
She never learned to read or write. She was tiny (5 feet tall) and suffered what were probably epileptic seizures as a result of a brain injury at the hands of her former owner. Yet she knew unfairness when she saw it. She fought injustice when she found it. And she never failed to stand up, speak out and risk everything when the goal of human freedom was at stake.
These are traits that the Bricklers have always valued.
Generations of Tallahasseeans have “passed beneath or through the hands” of beloved Dr. A. D. Brickler, 90, who retired earlier this year after 60 years as an obstetrician and gynecologist. A.D. and Dorothy Brickler’s family — including children A.J. Brickler III, also an OB/GYN; Celeste Brickler Hart, a physician; David Brickler, an IT director and Michael Brickler, an information technology consultant — are a close-knit family who espouse the values of equality and education for everyone that were especially cherished by “Aunt Harriet.”
Stories handed down
Harriet was one of nine children born to Benjamin and Harriet Ross in the slave territory of Dorchester, Maryland. Though she was married when she made her run for freedom, she likely had no natural-born children. She was, however, successful at helping many members of her family escape across the 100-plus miles to free states.
One of those she brought north to New York was a 10-year-old niece named Margaret Stewart, thought to be the daughter of Harriet’s sister.
Margaret was taken to Seward’s home, where Tubman said, “Raise her as if she were your own.” And that is just what the Sewards did.
Margaret grew up to marry Henry Lucas. Their daughter, Alice, became A.D. Brickler’s mother.
History in a bowl of apples
A great number of the 70 individuals Tubman traveled back and forth to rescue were extended family members. So it is no wonder that the sons and daughter of A.D. Brickler can recite scenes from her life as if they happened yesterday, just as they were told to A.D. by his grandmother.
“Aunt Harriet would tell Margaret the story of how she just loved apples,” A.J. Brickler said at his parents’ home recently. “And one day, when she was helping unload apples on the plantation, she just couldn’t resist. She reached out, picked up an apple, and took a bite. She was beaten for her trouble. Later, when she bought a piece of land of her own in Auburn, New York, she planted an apple orchard and always had a bowl of apples on her table just for the taking. And now each of us does too — just to remind us of her.”
Margaret, who until she was 13 spent afternoons after school with Tubman, told A.D. Brickler how clever her aunt was at disguising herself. Bending low and shuffling, the diminutive Tubman could be mistaken for a frail old lady, even as she was escorting nine or 10 escaped slaves across frozen rivers and woods.
“Aunt Harriet’s face was on wanted posters along the known escape routes,” A.D. Brickler said. “One day, she saw a bounty hunter marching straight at her. She happened to be carrying some live chickens tied together by their legs. She quickly crouched over, shuffled along, until she came even with the man, then she let the chickens loose to run every which way. I guess the man just laughed at the poor ‘old lady’ and the scattered poultry, not realizing he’d just passed up a big prize.”
But it seems that Tubman was not only clever and high-minded, she was also one tough woman.
“I guess Aunt Harriet carried it all along the Underground Railway route,” A.J. Brickler said of her pistol. “One time, one of the slaves — it might have even been a family member — was afraid to go forward. He wanted to turn around, but she knew that would be endangering the whole group. I guess she pointed this gun right at him and let him know she was in charge — and that they were all heading north.”
Tubman never lost a single person along the Underground Railroad.
A 3-foot-long sword once belonging to Lucas — a young man born into slavery who’d run away during the Civil War — now belongs to the Bricklers as well. The saber, A.D. Brickler said, was lifted from the body of a Confederate soldier Lucas encountered on the way north.
But it isn’t simply the memorabilia or even the tiny details of Tubman’s life that the Bricklers cherish. It is also the dedication to hard work, the belief in the equality of every life, the commitment to knowledge through education, and the basic act of doing what is right, no matter the cost, that her life’s work represents.
A.J. Brickler, realizing there were some gaps in his office staff’s knowledge of history, said that he took his entire office and other friends to see the movie.
“For 400 years we have been taught that we were ‘less.’ From the Middle Passage, slavery, the Great Migration, and Jim Crow, we were treated as if we were less than human,” he said. “This kind of movie reminds us that we must remove the gaps between ourselves.”
A.D. Brickler agrees. “There is worth in every person; potential in every one. It is a shame we should be divided by the way we look. Who knows which of us might be the next Einstein?”
Or the next Harriet Tubman, the next “prophet” — leading society toward justice, toward righteousness, holding neighbors by the hand.
Marina Brown can be contacted at [email protected]