Bringing history to life

The legacy of Harriet Tubman is alive and well.

And thanks to Kathryn Harris, multiple times a year for nearly two decades, Tubman's spirit comes to life as well.

The Springfield resident was the featured speaker on Sunday at the Museum of the Grand Prairie to kick off the 10th annual Lincoln Lecture series.

Harris portrayed Tubman, whom she has researched extensively, and stayed in character even during the post-talk question-and-answer session.

The title of her talk was "Harriet Tubman: Leader to Freedom."

That Tubman's life as a humanitarian is still relevant 104 years after her death is not a surprise to Harris.

"Harriet was a remarkable woman, almost mythological as opposed to being a real person," Harris said. "People are still intrigued. A woman, a black woman, led people to freedom, not once, not twice, but as many as 13 times.

"That kind of commitment to a cause is something that resonates with people."

Though Harris retired as the director of library services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in 2015, she first became familiar with Tubman and her efforts — which included helping to transport her own parents to freedom — as a fifth-grader.

"I remember going to our local public library and picking up a book in a biographical series about famous Americans," said Harris, a Carbondale native, "and Harriet Tubman was one of them."

Harris hasn't tired of her role.

"It's remarkable the places I've been able to go," she said. "I've been to lots of towns across central, southern and northern Illinois and introduced people to Harriet Tubman."

She has also gone beyond the state line and portrayed Tubman at events in Delaware and California.

Harris is knowledgeable about her subject, but quickly says, "I'm sure I don't know everything."

Tubman left behind no diaries, letters or papers.

"She was illiterate and could not read nor write," said Harris, who limits her talks to about 20 minutes to save time for questions.

By some accounts, Tubman helped as many as 300 slaves escape to freedom from the South in the mid-1800s by the use of safe houses or what was known as the Underground Railroad.

Harris started her presentation, which attracted 46 listeners, by saying, "It wasn't underground and it wasn't a railroad in the true sense of the word. Most of the travelling was by foot."

What it was, she explained, was "a network, a connection of people and places. The places were called stations and that might be a barn, an attic or a pond."

Tubman was never caught despite the presence of a $40,000 bounty.

There were no maps to follow.

"Most of the travel was at night," Harris said, explaining that the North Star was the guide. "All roads that lead north lead to freedom."

Harris will respond to most queries. Except one.

"I stay in character and answer questions as Harriet," Harris said. "People ask me, 'When did Harriet die?' but that is not an appropriate question."

One M-S seventh-grader asked a question Harris hadn't heard before.

"What was my favorite food?" she said, repeating the words. "Nobody has ever asked me that before.

"I like corn bread and I like chicken in a pot with potatoes."

If the audience has no questions, Harris is not at a loss for words.

"I tell people things I think they should know," Harris said.

Harris, a University of Illinois graduate, was no newcomer to the Grand Museum of the Prairie. She portrayed a different character at the facility last year.

"I have another character, Elizabeth Keckley," Harris said. "She was Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress, confidante and friend."Upcoming

Oct. 29, 2 p.m.: Lincoln and Science, Lincoln and nature

James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presendential Museum is the presenter.

 

Dec. 3, 2 p.m.: Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: A guide to Lincoln's 8th Judicial Circuit

Guy Fraker will speak about his new book.

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