By Maicharia Weir Lytle
How will you commemorate Harriet Tubman Day? The March 10 holiday has been in existence since 1990 when it was signed into law by then President George H.W. Bush. And while this annual observance doesn’t get as much attention as other holidays, I wonder if more people will pause this year to reflect on Harriet Tubman’s legacy.
Her remarkable life and contributions to humanity became more widely known in 2019, with the release of the feature film “Harriet” that endeavored to explore her life – an untold American story. Born into slavery in Maryland, Araminta or “Minty,” as she was known before taking the name Harriet to honor her mother, endured unimaginable atrocities, eventually fleeing for her freedom. She continued to risk her life as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, helping approximately 70 slaves navigate the long and dangerous journey to freedom. There is still much that we can learn from Harriet Tubman, and aspire to, based on her courage, conviction, intelligence, and determination.
The recent insurrection at the Capitol showcased jarring images of racism and elevated levels of hate. These images which included a man carrying the confederate flag into the Capitol, confirmed the existence of white supremacy that prevails 108 years after Harriet Tubman’s death. How far have we really come to ensure future generations won’t face the same injustices that she encountered in her lifetime?
In many ways, 2020 and the first weeks of this new year provided clarity – 20/20 vision – that revealed the work we still have ahead of us. Against the backdrop of a pandemic and political unrest of historic proportions, the country witnessed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Many Americans were confronted with a brutal reality that generations of Black people have regularly endured.
In the weeks that followed George Floyd’s murder, protests across the country promised a long overdue response to systemic racism and a commitment to reflect on our individual biases. Today, remnants of widespread calls to action remain in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement: signs placed in store windows, on car bumpers, and on lawns in affluent neighborhoods. Beyond these symbols of support, we need to continue the push toward justice, and to call on our political, business, and community leaders to act.
Now more than ever, we must speak up for social justice as COVID-19 continues to reveal inequities in health care, education and economic mobility that disproportionately effect people of color. The policies, laws, and systems that reinforce oppressive states, cripple our entire society from experiencing freedom, equity and equality.
As President and CEO of United South End Settlements (USES), we likely celebrate Harriet Tubman more than others given her connection to our organization and to Boston. USES dates back to 1904, when six Black women opened the Harriet Tubman House at 37 Holyoke Street in the South End. At that time, it was a boarding house that provided shelter, food and clothing for women with limited resources. Harriet Tubman was named honorary president of the Harriet Tubman House four years before her death on March 10, 1913. Over time, USES expanded to include the Children’s Art Centre, Camp Hale, and several other settlement houses aimed at serving the diverse needs of our community.
Today, we continue to honor Harriet Tubman through our work, supporting families and uniting communities for upward mobility. We share her story with our early education and after school students; our Harriet Tubman Change Maker Series brings community members together for virtual dinners and discussions focused on creating a more just, equal and anti-racist society; and on Harriet Tubman Day, we will pay tribute to her legacy across our organization.
Harriet Tubman Day is more than a chance to remember an American heroine. Her story reminds us that individual actions make a difference. It should spur all of us to recommit to equity and inclusion in our places of business, our schools and in our cities and towns.
My hope is that we all take the time to honor Harriet Tubman by sharing her story, pledging to speak out against injustices and supporting ongoing efforts toward equality.
How will you commemorate Harriet Tubman Day?
Maicharia Weir Lytle is president and CEO of United South End Settlements