Harris brings abolitionist Harriet Tubman to life at Lincoln
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[March 17, 2017]
- The latest exhibit at the Lincoln Heritage Museum on the campus of
Lincoln College is entitled “Lovers of Liberty, Take Courage,” words
spoken by President Lincoln during the darkest days of the Civil
In order to highlight the theme of the exhibit, the museum is
hosting a series of lectures by first person historical
interpreters. The interpreters selected 19th century people who
displayed extraordinary courage in this turbulent era of American
Friday evening Kathryn Harris of Springfield brought her portrayal
of Harriet Tubman to the museum.
Harris is well-known in the local historical community for her
service at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. She
recently retired as the director of the library at the museum. She
is a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association and the African
American Museum in Springfield.
Harris also was instrumental in crafting the Lincoln Heritage
Museum’s latest exhibit by providing access to the ALPLM artifacts
that were loaned to the LHM.
Why portray Harriet Tubman? A cursory look at Tubman’s
accomplishments shows extraordinary courage in gaining her own
freedom from slavery and rescuing many other slaves from involuntary
servitude. Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, but determined
early on that her liberty was a vital part of her life. She escaped
to the north and freedom as a young woman.
While in Philadelphia, Tubman joined with local Quakers to become a
part of the Underground Railroad, a group determined to bring as
many slaves out of the south and to freedom as possible. Tubman
became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a person who
actually made the dangerous trip into slave holding states and
brought slaves north through a series of safe houses that were set
Tubman made thirteen trips to Maryland to rescue her siblings and on
her final trip rescued her parents and brought them north to Canada
where they would be safe from the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Known as Moses to her many grateful passengers on the Underground
Railroad, she never lost a person on the perilous trip north to
freedom. She was so notorious among slave holders that they put a
$40,000 bounty for her capture.
During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a nurse, scout and
spy for the Union, continuing her life of extraordinary courage and
service to the cause of freedom for slaves. After the war, she
worked for the Freed Man Bureau teaching freed slaves how to be
free, to read and write and actually be paid for their work. Harriet
Tubman never learned to read and write, but was a force of nature
even without these skills.
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Kathryn Harris began immersion into her role as an historic
interpreter of Harriet Tubman by reading everything she could locate
on this icon of the abolitionist movement. She was a regular visitor
to the State Historic Library when it was located under the Old
State Capital Building in Springfield.
Once she was conversant with the historical facts of Harriet
Tubman’s life, Harris created a script to follow for her first
person presentation. As a first person historical interpreter,
Kathryn remains in character throughout her presentation.
“I practiced one-on-one with Phil Funkenbush at the Presidential
Museum to immerse myself in the Harriet Tubman persona. Phil is an
actor, director and head of the Presidential Museum’s performances.
He was a stern task master, but when I could answer any question he
put to me about Harriet’s life, I knew I was ready for my first
performance,” she said. Kathryn Harris is proud of the fact that she
has never been stumped by a question about Harriet Tubman’s life.
Kathryn Harris becomes Harriet Tubman during her performance. Her
acting skills are tremendous, and she is able to draw her audience
into the performance. Standing before the audience at the Lincoln
Heritage Museum in nineteenth century attire and large walking stick
which she thumps on the floor when making a defining point, it was
easy to be drawn into a moment in history by a person who helped
eliminate the scourge of slavery. “I’m a natural ham and love to act
before an audience,” said Harris with a laugh.
The Lincoln Heritage Museum will host a continuing series of
presentations by historic interpreters during 2017. Check the
Museum’s website for dates. Mr. Lincoln’s words “Lovers of Liberty,
Take Courage” resonate through the ages and have powerful meaning
for the present world.