Central Pennsylvania cathedral hosts ‘Leaders & Liberators’ reenactment honoring Harriet Tubman

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 7, 2024

Raquel Richardson will portray Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman in a dramatic reading on March 10 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Photo: Martha Harris

[Episcopal News Service] On March 10, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, will observe 111 years since the death of Harriet Tubman by hosting a one-hour dramatic reading. The event is sponsored by the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and the Bishop Nathan Baxter chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians.

The story, called “Leaders & Liberators,” is an imagined reenactment of Harriet Tubman conversing with two fellow Underground Railroad conductors, Stephen Smith and William Whipper, on Independence Day 1872, in Cape May, New Jersey.

The Rev. Martha Harris, priest-in-charge at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Columbia and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mechanicsburg, wrote the script with her husband, Randolph “Randy” Harris, who works in historic preservation in Lancaster County.

“If you think about what Harriet did, constantly putting her own life at risk even after she had gotten her freedom, she went back and got more people, and more people, and more people to come to Philadelphia so they could be free. And then she went on to be a healer until the end of her life. It really is impressive,” Martha Harris told Episcopal News Service.

The Episcopal Church celebrates Harriet Tubman’s feast day on March 10. Photo: GPA Photo Archive/H.B. Lindsley/Library of Congress

Tubman, who was born enslaved in 1822 before escaping as an adult, is best known for her work helping about 70 enslaved people reach freedom as a conductor for the Underground Railroad. Known as the “Moses of Her People,” she also was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harper’s Ferry and was active in the effort to secure for women the right to vote. The Episcopal Church celebrates Tubman’s feast day on March 10.

In the early 19th century, Smith and Whipper, brothers-in-law and business partners, were successful entrepreneurs in the lumber industry in Columbia. They both also worked in real estate in Philadelphia. They were among the wealthiest Black Philadelphians in their lifetimes. They used their wealth to transport enslaved people to freedom in the north via railroad cars they owned.

“None of this was taught in school. People like Thaddeus Stevens and Whipper and Smith, and of course Harriet Tubman — they’re heroes and heroines that if especially young, minority kids saw these people in the history books back in the ’50s and ’60s and had them to look up to when they were growing up, I think we would have a whole different perspective on our whole world around us on these issues,” Randy Harris told ENS.

Martha Harris said the reenactment project grew from the 2022 General Convention resolution encouraging every diocese to honor Tubman’s 110th death anniversary. In response, the Rev. Rebecca Myers, rector of Church of the Nativity and St. Stephen in Newport, proposed the idea of producing the dramatic reading and obtained a grant from Province III. With support from the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the first dramatic reading took place one year ago at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Columbia followed by an evening prayer service. About 125 people attended.

Martha and Randy Harris combined research from documents and biographies of Tubman, Smith and Whipper to create the script. Because there’s no documentation of Tubman having ever visited Columbia, the Harrises decided to set the story in Cape May, where Tubman lived in the early 1850s. They also chose the year 1872 because it was the year abolitionist William Still published his experience as an Underground Railroad conductor, “The Underground Railroad Records,” using notes he hid in diaries. During the reenactment, Tubman, Smith and Whipper trade stories and reflect on their experiences as abolitionists. The reenactment will also include Whipper reading passages from “The Underground Railroad” to Tubman, who never learned to read.

“[Tubman] communicated through songs and through a lot of emotional appeal. She could also use the stars as a way of navigating through the dark woods, but she was never a person of the word,” Martha Harris said. “Her singing comes across well in the dramatic reading. It shows that even though she couldn’t read or write, she clearly had this intelligence.”

To ensure authenticity, Randy Harris recreated the original cover of “The Underground Railroad Records” for the actors to use as a prop. Martha Harris also used historic documents to produce language Tubman would’ve used while alive.

The “Leaders & Liberators” cast consists of Raquel Richardson as Tubman, Nelson Polite Jr. as Smith and Lenwood Sloan as Whipper. Tyrone Powell, an attorney and parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, will serve as the interlocutor, or host, of the reenactment.

“These are the kinds of stories that need to be uplifted now,” Randy Harris said.

Leaders & Liberators” will start at 4 p.m. Eastern March 10. The event is free and open to the public.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.