Bringing Harriet Tubman to Life

02/15/2018
by Laurel C. Wemett

Harriet Tubman, former slave and famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, helped numerous others escape slavery before the Civil War, and then continued her humanitarian efforts after settling in Auburn, New York. While many stories and biographies have been written about her, one of the best ways to learn about her courage, determination, generosity and strength is by seeing a reenactor. Among those who bring to life Harriet Tubman (c.1820-1913) in schools, churches, historical societies and other settings is Magelene (Maggie) Moore-Holley of Rochester.

“I was interested in black history,” explains Moore-Holley who performs with AKWAABA, a Rochester-based organization, and also as an independent reenactor. Moore-Holley first saw AKWAABA reenactors when she attended a “Watch Night” church service, an annual celebration on December 31. It commemorates the night of December 31, 1862, when freed blacks living in the Union states gathered at churches to wait for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law on January 1, 1863.

On Becoming Harriet

“At first I was apprehensive because I knew that reenacting required much study and practice,” recalls Moore-Holley. But after she retired from the Monroe County Department of Social Services in 2010, she started to become Harriet, joining Dr. Carolyn Edwards and Robin Nowell, who also depict Harriet Tubman with AKWAABA.

“Maggie often portrays Harriet Tubman for AKWAABA: the Heritage Associates when we present one of our historical programs for our Underground Railroad tours, for school groups or requested programs,” explains Ruth Anderson, executive director of AKWAABA. “We feel that she truly embodies the spirit of Harriet Tubman.”

Books about the woman called the “Moses of her People” fuel Moore-Holley’s portrayal. Biographies by Tubman’s contemporary, Sarah Hopkins Bradford of Geneva, were written in 1869 and 1886 to raise money for Tubman, who was living in poverty in Auburn. Since the former slave was illiterate, Bradford’s books preserved her stories for posterity, although recent Tubman biographies offer more scholarly interpretations of her life. The Bradford-Tubman collaboration is explored in a new documentary (see page 44).

The reenactor researched what was happening during Tubman’s lifetime and how Tubman persevered through her struggles. “First of all, being a woman in the 19th century was an obstacle in itself,” explains Moore-Holley. “In addition, Tubman was a runaway slave – that was a great big obstacle – but she was determined to do what she was called to do. I believe it was her destiny, not her decision.”

The abolitionist’s determination, courage, and faith in God are incorporated into Moore-Holley’s Tubman persona. As Harriet, she shares insight about growing up a slave, escaping to freedom in 1849, the separation from her family, and risky return trips south to bring them and others to safety.

Finding the right “voice” of the freedom fighter was critical. Moore-Holley, a Rochesterian since she was 16, spent her early life in the Carolinas and then Maryland where Tubman was born. In some books about the Underground Railroad conductor, the dialect used is “Deep South,” explains the reenactor. “I’ve lived in Maryland and the Deep South; I’ve heard both accents and they are not the same.” She listens to “Tubman’s voice regardless of how they have her speak,” and seeks to find out how terminology used in Maryland and the more southerly states differed.

Moore-Holley’s familiarity with Tubman’s surroundings enhances her reenactment. “I think about her experiences travelling back and forth, moving from Maryland to Pennsylvania to New York to Canada for her work. I know Maryland weather and terrain and how difficult it was for her to travel in wagons and walking.”

Her 20 years spent as a case worker made the Rochester resident familiar with human suffering and provided an understanding of Tubman. “I saw how Harriet reached out to people and gave all she had to help.” Like the woman she portrays, Moore-Holley has a strong Christian faith and she learns from Tubman’s example. “What I get out of portraying Tubman is what she pours into me. When I’m struggling with an issue and looking for an answer, she is one of my go-to persons. She teaches me about commitment, passion, perseverance and all that it takes to continue on through trials. She encourages me.”

Physically, the reenactor is just a few inches taller than the 5-foot Tubman, but the resemblance does not stop there. When Moore-Holley took a photo of Tubman to a seamstress to have a jacket made, the woman asked if she had a larger photo from the “family album,” not realizing Moore-Holley wasn’t related to Tubman.

A unique signature of Moore-Holley’s performance is her singing of spirituals. A member of Rochester’s AKOMA, the African-American Women’s Gospel Choir, she believes the songs connect with Tubman’s travels. Her rendition of “Keep Your Hand on the Plow – Hold On,” sung during a program last fall at the Fairport Historical Museum, seemed to transcend time.

“Maggie did such an amazing job that the audience felt as if they were in the presence of Harriet Tubman herself,” says Vicki Masters Profitt, director of the museum where, once a year, an actor portrays an historical figure. A question-and-answer period further engaged the audience. Was Tubman a spy during the Civil War? Why didn’t her first husband John Tubman join her in the North? How did she end up in Auburn? Profitt says the standing ovation Maggie received was “a testament to her portrayal of Miss Tubman.”

One place Moore-Holley especially enjoys visiting is the Tubman home and associated properties which are now the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn. For more information visit nps.gov or call 315-252-2081.


AKWAABA: The Heritage Associates, Inc

The group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization devoted to the use of oral history to present Underground Railroad tours, enactments of historical events and presentations that reflect the dignity and perseverance of the community of Afro Rochester. The organization develops educational programs and provides a unique resource to schools through its mission to educate children and adults on the 19th-century Freedom Movement in the Rochester area.

AKWAABA presents tours, living history enactments, plays and other educational presentations of the sites, personalities, and events that comprised the Underground Railroad, especially those identified with the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Isaac and Amy Post are but a few of the abolitionists who labored long and hard to support “freedom seekers” making their way through the Rochester area. (akwaabatours.org. 585-482-5192)


Filmmaker Meets Reenactor

Harriet Tubman and her biographer Sarah Bradford is the subject of “Daughters of the New Republic: Harriet Tubman and Sarah Bradford,” a new documentary directed by Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Dr. Linda Robertson, a Professor in the Department of Media and Society.

“I discovered that Sarah Bradford, Tubman’s biographer, lived in the house which is now the Admissions Office for HWS,” explains Robertson. “Very little was known about her. I thought the story of her collaboration with Tubman was an important one to tell.” HWS students appeared as actors and also served as associate producers and crew. The documentary premiered at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls in 2016 and was selected for screening at the University Film and Video Association Conference in 2016.


To arrange a public viewing contact robertson@hws.edu.