The concept of hacking established networks and systems to break through and achieve an individual’s goals predates the age of computers and the internet by decades, as enslaved people in the United States often “hacked” the systems holding them in bondage to find freedom.
Phillip Hesser, an Eastern Shore author and historian, shared the multiple hacks African-American slaves living in Maryland before the Civil War — including famed historical figures Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman — used to either carve out free space while enslaved or navigate multiple man-made and natural transit networks to escape to freedom in the North.
“The more you try to tighten up the system, the more easily it can be hacked,” Hesser said during his lecture, “All Aboard for Philadelphia,” Monday afternoon in the second-floor theater of The Cultural Center at the Opera House in Havre de Grace.
Hesser’s lecture was the final portion of a slew of events held in the city over the three-day President’s Day holiday weekend to celebrate the history of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
The Havre de Grace Arts Collective, a nonprofit entity that manages programming at the Opera House, collaborated with multiple individuals and community organizations to put on the events. They started Saturday with “Story Time for Children” at the Opera House, with resident Christopher Providence reading three children’s books about enslaved peoples’ journeys to freedom.
The books, all available at the Harford County Public Library, included “Before She was Harriet,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Henry’s Freedom Box.” The last book is about a real-life man named Henry “Box” Brown who hid in a shipping crate and mailed himself to freedom, according to Providence.
Providence, who attended Hesser’s lecture on Monday, said about three children and 20 adults attended the book reading. He noted that “the kids were engaged, and the adults were equally engaged.”
“The stories are so great, and you can’t help but empathize with the characters,” Providence said.
He discussed with the audience the Underground Railroad and the heroism shown by Tubman and others escaping slavery, and Providence stressed to his listeners that they can be heroes, too.
A hero is someone who “demonstrates great courage, has outstanding achievements and great character,” Providence said Monday.
Other weekend events included a reception Saturday night with artist Paul Collins, whose paintings of Tubman and other historical figures are on display on the first floor of the Opera House.
The “Isaac Worthington, Runaway Slave” radio play, by Havre de Grace resident Camay Murphy, and a concert featuring local singer Debbra Mason were put on Sunday afternoon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, followed by an “Antebellum Supper.”
The 2019 biopic “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, was shown at the Opera House on Sunday evening, followed by a talk with Kimerly Cornish, a descendant of Tubman.
Jan Hirschfeld, a member of the Arts Collective’s programming committee, said there was “a full house” for the “Harriet” film showing and Cornish’s subsequent talk. Hirschfeld described the weekend as “very successful.”
“We learned so much from so many people who are looking at [Tubman] from so many different angles,” Hirschfeld said.
Harriet Tubman — as well as her parents, siblings and husband — were slaves in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. Tubman, who was born in the 1820s, was owned by the Brodess family and grew up on their farm.
She was born Araminta Ross and known by the nickname, “Minty.” She married freedman John Tubman and later changed her first name to Harriet.
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 via the Underground Railroad. She made it to her destination, Philadelphia, but later returned to Maryland to free relatives and many other slaves. Tubman, known as “Moses" during that period, became one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad.
Hesser said slaves regarded Tubman as “a high woman with special powers” because of her success in leading people to freedom. Tubman herself credited her success to a variety of factors, such as her knowledge of the terrain, God looking out for her and in some cases, plain luck — Hesser relayed one story in which Tubman recalled sitting on a train and seeing her former master, then quickly picking up a newspaper a covering her face, noting that the “Lord save me that time, too.”
“That’s a person who could keep cool,” Hesser said of Tubman.
The historian also talked about how slaves hacked spare moments, when their movements were not so restricted and their activities were not closely monitored, while still in bondage to do things for themselves such as meet up with family or hold prayer and singing sessions.
“To exist in that system, people knew how to game that system on a day-to-day [basis],” Hesser said.
He also talked about alternative history novels that have been published in recent years, based on the premise that slavery exists in the U.S. into the 20th Century and how slaves must exploit modern-day systems such as airlines to achieve freedom.
Hesser answered a number of audience questions on topics such as his thoughts on the accuracy of the “Harriet” film. He noted the Brodess family did not live in a “fancy-schmancy antebellum mansion,” as shown early in the movie, but had serious financial struggles.
He said the family was perhaps “one step above being a dirt farmer,” but the Brodesses had “assets in the form of human souls.” They and other slave-owning families of the time could hire their people out to other businesses, and the slaves would bring back the money they earned — Tubman and her father worked in the timber business, and Tubman would bring her earnings back to the Brodess clan, according to Hesser.
Hesser encouraged people to look for further reading material about Harriet Tubman online, leading them to their personal experience of Tubman.
“I have found mine, and she is a very special person to me,” Hesser said.