At 4-foot-10, Harriet Tubman was a giant in spirit, courage, and heroism in the eyes of a little girl in Canada, where so many slaves Tubman rescued found north-of-the-border freedom.
Leslie McCurdy, a native of Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, didn’t have many historic-figure role models—certainly not many who looked like her. Not until fifth-grade when she first read about Tubman, a runaway slave from Dorchester County who returned south repeatedly to rescue dozens—eventually hundreds—from bondage.
Comparisons to Moses are not clichés. Tubman was the real deal.
“It made such an impression on me—my school was mostly white—that I found reasons on every grade level to do something about Harriet Tubman: Draw a picture, give an oral report, write a term paper,” McCurdy recalls. Following college, she turned to acting after an injury derailed her first artistic ambition—dance. McCurdy wrote a one-woman play, “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman,” which she performs live at Chesapeake College’s Todd Performing Arts Center Saturday evening, Feb. 21.
Taller in physical stature, McCurdy has portrayed Tubman on stage for 23 years, including about four years ago on the Wye Mills campus. “I guess they liked me well enough to invite me back,” she says modestly.
With a little prodding, McCurdy admits she’s often been “overwhelmed by the way people find it such a powerful and inspirational example of one person’s spirit and heroism.”
McCurdy’s source material—she owns the title role, of course—wasn’t easy to come by. “My play is based on words that are said to be her own,” McCurdy says. As a child field slave, Tubman never had the opportunity to learn reading or writing, unlike fellow slave Frederick Douglass, who, transferred from Talbot County to Baltimore as a youngster, became an abolitionist author, orator, and spokesman for enslaved and freed African-Americans.
Life-sized statues of Tubman and Douglass were unveiled at the State House in Annapolis at the start of the 2020 General Assembly session this month.
The statues were news to McCurdy when interviewed by phone on the road before her Chesapeake College show this weekend. But she has explored other local sites from Tubman’s life as a slave as well as others in Underground Railroad “depots” in Canada. At first, Tubman and those she rescued just needed to make it north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But renewed enforcement of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, rewarding the return of runaway slaves, lengthened the final Underground Railroad destination all the way to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and other Canadian border towns.
“In some ways, Harriet was better known in Canada than in the States,” McCurdy says, citing Tubman’s image on the Canada $10 bill. Her picture was to replace President Andrew Jackson’s this year on the U.S. $20 bill. However, President Trump nixed that idea. Sooner or later, his unilateral decision likely will be overturned. But that’s another story.
In addition to “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman,” McCurdy also performs an abridged version for younger audiences—grades K-through-2.
Tubman isn’t the only black heroine McCurdy celebrates in live performance. She also does a one-woman show about another Maryland native, Billie Holiday, who she describes as a “race woman and artist.”
“People focus on her drug addiction,” says McCurdy. “But she was also a woman of conviction for just causes.” Or opposition to terribly unjust causes, such as lynching. Holiday ignored those who discouraged her from performing the song, “Strange Fruit,” which refers to black bodies hanging from trees that also produce apples, for instance, or, particularly in the South, peaches.
McCurdy personally met Rosa Parks, the Alabama woman who refused to surrender her seat on a municipal bus to a white passenger. Parks (no known relation to this writer) is among those McCurdy honors in her show, “Things My Fore-Sisters Said.” She once accompanied Parks to Underground Railroad sites in Canada. Now, other stops along the “railroad” are traced in Dorchester and Caroline counties, plus parts of Delaware.
McCurdy recalls visiting the country store in Bucktown, near Cambridge, where slave-girl Tubman was assaulted by a white man who cracked her skull with a hurled stone. The recent movie release “Harriet,” to which McCurdy takes some exception, depicts her injury as a source of clairvoyance. “That diminishes her intelligence and smarts,” McCurdy says, in eluding those who’d capture her and fellow refugees.
It may be easier to dismiss Billie Holiday’s anti-Jim Crow politics, owing to drug/alcohol abuse, or even Rosa Parks’ impertinence in the eyes of unrepentant segregationists. But Tubman, who lived to 90 or 91—slaves were robbed even of recorded birthdates—led Union soldiers to free slaves in Confederate states and, later, helped the aged and advocated women’s suffrage.
Tubman was and remained an unapproachable savior on the right side of history.
Take it from Leslie McCurdy: “Harriet’s been my hero since I was ten years old.”
Happy Black History Month. McCurdy does two shows a week each February. The dedicated month could hardly be better celebrated.
The Spirit of Harriet Tubman
Todd Performing Arts Center, Chesapeake College, Wye Mills Friday, Feb. 21, 7 p.m. Tickets: $20, $10 for children 10 and younger 410-827-5867
Steve Parks is a retired journalist and theater critic now living in Easton.
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