“There are two things I have a right to—liberty or death. One or the other I mean to have. I shall fight for my liberty.”
Sixty-seven years ago, Richard Durham wrote the lines above for his Independence Day script about famed abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist Harriet Tubman.
On July 4, 1948, Chicago-based actors Weslyn Tilden, Oscar Brown Jr., Fred Pinkard and Janice Kingslow breathed life into Durham’s “Railway to Freedom” script for his Destination Freedom radio series. Every Sunday morning from 10-10:30, Durham’s Destination Freedom episodes featured dramas about contemporary and historical African American heroes and heroines in fields as diverse as sports (Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens), politics (Adam Clayton Powell and Reconstruction-era Congressman Charles Caldwell), education (Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune, and entertainment (Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong).
In “Railway to Freedom,” Durham let his Harriet Tubman character narrate her own story:
Harriet: (On cue. Listening, intense, with depth, warmth and slight touch of the mystic.)
I’m Harriet Tubman. I lived in the shadows out of sight of
the light of Liberty. I heard their voices call out to me in the
dark. . . They were the voices of slaves. They were the voices
of my people. When I heard them earth moved under me.
Rockets burst in my head. They were the voices of God!
(Quieter.) I—was Moses.
At the beginning of the show, Tubman is a young slave, growing “wild like a weed” on a Maryland plantation. One day a fellow slave runs past her, trying to escape from the plantation. Tubman blocks their owner’s attempt to catch the fleeing slave. The owner threatens to hit her with the heavy iron bar he’s holding if she doesn’t move.
Durham’s Harriet states: “I was afraid, but I wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t move! I saw him lift the iron bar. Then his hand struck down!” Tubman collapses. Ethereal sound effects indicate her semi-conscious thoughts. “The earth moved and rockets burst in my head,” Tubman says. Durham returns often to this earth/rocket metaphor, using it to represent the painful headaches, seizures, and loss of consciousness Tubman endures for the rest of her life because of her owner’s blow.
Once Tubman emerges from her wound-induced coma, she fervently desires freedom. She becomes fascinated with the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of secular and religious organizations and individuals—black and white—who serve as the railway’s conductors or agents. They secretly provide food, shelter, or financial assistance to escaping slaves—the railroad’s passengers.
Tubman eventually rides the Underground Railroad to freedom. However, she quickly realizes that she wants family members and other slaves to taste the sweetness of liberty. Or as one of Durham’s Underground Railroad conductor characters says to Harriet:
Levi: Now and then one comes our way who’s got that flame
burning not just for his freedom, but for his brothers,
sisters, friends.You burn that way…you felt you would
fight until the last slave was freed. Slavery is war and you
would have no peace until the war against it is won.
Tubman becomes an Underground Railroad conductor, and her numerous liberation trips back into and out of the South are rife with danger. Tubman and her passengers could be caught and dragged back into slavery at any turn. While the exact number of slaves Tubman spirited away is in dispute, she courageously led many of her people to freedom.
So on this Independence Day, and for the month of July, we celebrate Harriet Tubman’s freedom fighting legacy and Richard Durham’s dramatic tribute to it.
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