SPOILER: I’m a middle-aged white guy, raised in Canada to speak English. I’m not gay. I wasn’t raised by religious fundamentalists and I am reasonably well-read. I don’t have a birth defect, not even male pattern balding.
My point is that I had the dumb luck of being born as a lottery winner.
The worries and concerns of those with real challenges just because of the situation they were born into or the colour of their skin is completely alien to me.
I grew up in a small Maritime town and I didn’t know 5 people who were different from me — I mean really different — coming from another culture, natively speaking another language, practicing a non-Christian religion or actually looking different from me and my friends.
The assumption is that people that look like me don’t come from this place.
So when Rosemary Sadlier stood in front of the crowd gathered for the 1st Ridgeway Reads event of 2013 and asked the crowd where they thought she had been born and then proceeded to ask the same question about her parents and grandparents, I understood what she meant.
She explained that she was born in Toronto. She said it is important for her to start out clarifying this because “the assumption is that people that look like me don’t come from this place.”
Even though, by reasoning, I know that to be true. She is right to challenge the sensibilities that I undoubtedly share with the audience in attendance.
It turns out her father’s family was among the first black loyalists that settled in New Brunswick in 1783 and that her mother’s family came to the London area in 1820 through the Underground Railroad.
It was her own genealogy as well as her lifelong spiritual connection with the British Methodist Episcopal Church that developed a deep personal curiosity about the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman.
Author Rosemary Sadlier – Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader
Rosemary Sadlier’s curiosity led to a long and winding quest to uncover more about the intriguing past associated with her family and others of African origin living in Canada. This has resulted in her role as a scholar, as the President of the Ontario Black History Society, and as an author of several books focused on Canadian black history including her newest, Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader.
Rosemary shared some of the personal history that fueled her search, explaining that she was life-long writer even before she had been invited to publish her work. Her writing and research and even the involvement in her church community with the British Methodist Episcopal Church had led to discoveries that helped her separate the facts from the legend, even around a near-mythic figure like Harriet Tubman.
It was clear as Rosemary spoke and read from her book that she had developed a personal history and respect for the person who we know has Harriet Tubman.
I knew some scattered details about Harriet, but Rosemary’s account focused on her as a real person who accomplished incredible feats despite nearly insurmountable odds.
Harriet was born into slavery as Harriet Ross in Maryland and was the youngest child in her family. Even when she was 4 or 5 she was assigned the responsibility of looking after the white children in the household. Rosemary explained the seriousness of even a simple task like that would include her being whipped any time the child in her care began to cry.
As she got older, Harriet began working in the field with her family and the other slaves. It was there in her conversations with fellow slaves and others who passed through that she learned a slave could follow the Northern Star towards freedom.
In the fields she eventually met John Tubman, who was a free black man. They got to know each other and were married and from John she learned that he had become free as a result of the last will and testament of his white master.
Harriet had positioned herself to do extra work for money and she used her money to hire a lawyer. That lawyer uncovered something she had suspected, that her family had also been promised freedom by last will and testament, but the order had been disregarded. Harriet was furious to discover that she and her family were living the life of slaves even though they were legally supposed to be free.
Harriet determined that she would make herself free and told her husband. John assured her that if she tried to run away he would tell her master. It was then she realized she would need to keep her plan to herself.
Before Harriet could make her way to freedom, she was involved in an incident in which she was hit in the head by a heavy measuring weight. This blow caused a serious head injury that resulted in a permanent disability, including seizures and narcolepsy.
Rosemary said it was speculated that although Harriet was prone to fainting, not all incidents were real. Harriet would use these fainting spells to be privy to conversations she otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to hear and that provided her with additional insight when preparing her escape plan.
Harriet did escape to Philadelphia along the Underground Railroad and returned several times to free relatives and other slaves from her new home in the north.
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1851, basically no black person (free or otherwise) in America was safe. It was then that Harriet made her way to a new Canadian home in St. Catharines, Ontario.
It was from her new home, here in Niagara, that Harriet Tubman proceeded to coordinate 11 of her 19 rescue missions, many with the help of Reverend Hiram Wilson out of the BME Church in St. Catharines.
Rosemary concluded her description of Harriet Tubman by adding that she had worked as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. She successfully completed as many as 19 missions and rescued 300 people, many under cover of the darkness and through cold winters, all on foot. Harriet worked with the Northern Forces during the civil war and coordinated a raid and rescue mission responsible for saving 600 people, making her the only woman in American history to accomplish such a military feat.
Harriet Tubman was a hero and saviour despite being slight of stature, uneducated, disabled, without resources and born into slavery.
An inspiring, human story and one that will impact me for years to come.
Rosemary’s thoughtful, sincere overview of how writing this book personally affected her and her willingness to share it with the audience here in Niagara though her conversation and the questions and answers that followed was greatly appreciated by all in attendance.
RIDGEWAY READS LITERARY SOCIETY
“Ridgeway Reads” Spring Authors Series, public readings: There’s something for everyone in this series – biography, murder mystery, history, fiction, environmental subjects and local nostalgia.
Every Friday evening from April 5 through May 24 the evening will begin with a reception at 6 pm, followed by the reading, a meet and greet and book signing.
Rosemary Sadlier, president of Ontario Black History Society, on Harriet Tubman, who smuggled runaway slaves from the US to St. Catharines before the US Civil War.
Hugh Brewster, expert on the Titanic sinking, and on the weekend of the 101st anniversary of the sinking, will host a memorable evening on the Titanic disaster.
Tyler Hamilton, Toronto Star Columnist and environmental scientist, will discuss “mad like Tesla”
Jill Downie with an evening of intrigue, murder and mystery.
Cathy Marie Buchanan will discuss her wonderful new book, “Painted Girls”.
Celebrated author Susan Swan will discuss “The Western Light”.
Tamas Dobozy will discuss his book, “Siege 13”
William Kae has compiled three elaborate books on the days of Crystal Beach which will put everyone in the mood for summer.
Peter Vronsky will guide people on a tour of the Battle of Ridgeway battlefield at 11 am, followed by a book signing at the bookstore.
You can purchase a membership to the Ridgeway Reads Society which covers the cost of the readings and gives you a 15% discount at the bookstore.
ROSEMARY SADLIER – AUTHOR
Rosemary Sadlier was born and raised in Toronto, and has a teaching degree and a graduate degree in social work. She has been president of the Ontario Black History Society since 1993, and was instrumental in making the celebration of Black History Month a national event in Canada.
A noted author, her books work to highlight the historical contributions and experiences of Black people in Canada. Her much-praised titles include biographies of Harriet Tubman and Mary Ann Shadd and Leading the Way: Black Women in Toronto. She also wrote The Kid’s Book of Black Canadian History. Her newest book and the one featured at the Ridgeway Reads Friday Author Series is Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader. Sadlier lives and writes in Toronto.