Manumission, literally "to let go from the hand", was a slave's dream that remained even after the waking. For the owner, it was a prayer for forgiveness in the hereafter, where slaveholding presumably would not be the same kind of status symbol it had been on Earth.
"Post-mortem manumission was an excellent compromise between fear of community reaction and fear of Hell in the afterlife," wrote James Gifford, a professor of history affiliated with Morehead State University in Kentucky, in his doctoral thesis, "The African colonization movement in Georgia, 1817-1860." The practice was not uncommon for those slaveholders who felt conflicted about the morality of the institution.
Emily's surrogate father, for instance - legendary statesman Henry Clay - openly decried slaveholding: "Can any humane man be happy and contented when he sees near thirty thousand of his fellow beings around him, deprived of all the rights which make human life desirable, transferred like cattle from the possession of one to another."
Yet for all of Clay's hatred of what he called a "stain upon the character of our country," he did not free his own slaves until his death, and even then he placed age restrictions on which of his slaves were eligible for freedom. Furthermore, like many Americans he believed that any population of free blacks in white America would be an impossible social and political situation.
"I think (slavery) is an evil," he once wrote, "but I believe it better that Slaves should remain Slaves than be set loose as free men among us."
His beliefs made him one of the country's strongest supporters of the colonization movement, through which free blacks were returning to Africa to build the West African colony of Liberia.
So why would otherwise virtuous men like Tubman and Clay bring this stain on themselves and own slaves at all? Quite simply, they needed the labor for their plantations, and the price was right.
Now, in his will, Tubman was acting on his convictions.
On Friday, Nov. 25, 1836, Andrew Jackson Miller took Emily Tubman's petition to the Statehouse in Milledgeville. Miller served Richmond County in the House of Representatives that year but moved across the hall to the Senate the next, serving there until 1852.
It was written in the House journal that day that the request "was referred to the committee on Petitions, without being read." Two weeks later, on Dec. 8, the committee came back to the full House with hardened hearts.
William P. Easly of Walton County told the assembly that the committee members were "of the opinion that the petition is unjust and unreasonable, and therefore ought not to be granted." Easly begged that he and his fellow committee members should be discharged from further consideration of the issue. The House agreed, and so ended any chance of the Tubman slaves living free in Georgia.
The men of the House decided it was not worth Richard Tubman's $5,000 enticement for the university to subject their fellow Georgians to the fearful prospect of a few dozen more free blacks living among them. Never mind that the $5,000 was nearly as much as the state's annual appropriation to the university. Never mind that the yearly salaries for the faculty totaled a mere $3,200 at the time. Never mind that these would prove to be hardworking people, peaceful and industrious.
Emily was left with a tough decision. She was compelled to honor Richard's wishes, but it would have been very difficult in 1836 to find her slaves a home in America that met his criteria of a state that would "secure to them the rights and immunities of free persons." But she knew something about the colonization movement and, although there is no evidence she ever talked with Henry Clay about it, she must have been familiar with his involvement.
In December of that very year, in fact, Clay had was named president of the American Colonization Society, saying at the time of his election that colonization was "the only practical scheme ever presented to public consideration for separating, advantageous to all parties, the European descendants upon this Continent from the free people of colour, the descendants of Africans, with their own consent."
In the end, Emily wouldn't look north or west for an American home for her bondsmen; she would look east to Africa.
The African solution
Largely prettied-up or carelessly simplified over time, the colonization movement has come to be known popularly as a group of civil rights activists who were way ahead of their time - a philanthropic band of idealists, hoping against hope that they could give something back to a people from whom so much had been taken. And though there was a key philanthropic element involved, the truth is that the movement was also made up of pragmatists, racists, abolitionists, missionaries and businessmen. There were as many agendas at work as there were members, it would seem.
The seeds of the movement had been sown as far back as the 1770s, when two Rhode Island ministers dreamed aloud about educating young blacks and sending them to Africa to form a religious colony, but nothing ever came of the idea. Over the years, sermons and pamphlets were published on the topic, but it didn't gather much more interest until 1815, when Paul Cuffee, a black man, sailed 40 free blacks from Boston to the English settlement at Sierra Leone on his own vessel.
John H.B. Latrobe, a long-time administrator in the colonization movement, noted in a speech in 1880 that the missionary enterprise of the clergymen, coupled with Cuffee's belief that colonization "would tend to raise the Negroes in the United States to civil and religious liberty in the land of their forefathers," were key reasons the movement began to pick up steam.
Some people supported it as a way to speed the end of slavery altogether, he said, while others "hoped that it would lead to a separation of the (free) Negroes from what the masters said was an injurious contact with their slaves," referring to the common fear among slave owners that there would be trouble for whites if the slaves - who far outnumbered whites in many rural communities - rose up and fought for their freedom.
Still others, Latrobe noted, looked forward to a commercial settlement on the vast African continent - a virgin market - and others fancied it, undefined, as leading to a solution to the "Negro question."
But even with so much broad-based, albeit divergent, support, there was little money to finance the movement's expensive proposition.
It was not until 1818, when the U.S. government increased the penalties against traders attempting to bring slaves to the New World, that Liberia was born. The next year, Congress passed a law requiring slaves captured from traders on the high seas to be held and then removed from the United States. According to Latrobe, President James Monroe saw cooperation with the American Colonization Society as a means to that end and appropriated funds for the first American settlement in Africa in 1820.
The Americans chose a spot that eventually would grow into about 350 miles of Atlantic coastline on the southwesternmost edge of the African bulge. It had been a place that, as yet, had escaped any historical significance, playing little if any part in the great Ghanain or Malian empires that had ruled the region in centuries past. Nasty tropical diseases and nastier run-ins with unhappy natives from some of the area's 16 indigenous tribes were the demise of the first American expeditions, but eventually armed support, gun-to-the-head treaties and the blood and sweat of hardy settlers added up to a hard-fought, if politically incorrect, home.
Legendary Liberian patriot Jehudi Ashmun believed he and the other settlers were building a "nation, which, (would be) increasing in numbers by immigration, just as Plymouth and Jamestown increased of old, until the Dark Continent shall be dark no longer."
Liberia and the colonization movement continued to grow, and by the 1830s several states had begun their own societies which competed for attention and funding with each other and the American Colonization Society.
Entrusted with souls
Emily Tubman would distinguish herself as a selfless giver and a dedicated Christian in her 49 years after Richard's death, but there is no way to know what was in her heart as she worked to find the slaves a new home.
The record is mute on how Emily felt about slavery or about free blacks living in white America. She wasn't known as a champion of the Colonization movement, and the shrewd businesswoman continued to buy and sell slaves long after executing Richard's will.
Was she to be counted among the pragmatists or missionaries? The abolitionists? The racists?
"That is the most profound question about colonization. I think, in general terms, the Tubman case is more of a true philanthropic case," says Dr. Gifford, the Tubman scholar. "People wanted to do something to wash their hands of the sins of slavery. (Colonization) was a practical alternative - a plan, a destination."
It is clear that Emily cared about the success and well being of her slaves, the souls her husband entrusted to her in an attempt to save his own. She wrote to R.R. Gurley of the American Colonization Society in March: "My late husband desires me in his will to emancipate 48 of our slaves and remove them to one of the U. States in which I may deem the Laws calculated to give them the most protection and liberty. I have thought it not departing from the spirit of the will (the happiness and comfort of these people), to lay before them such information with regard to Liberia as I could collect, and let them choose a home for themselves."
She expected to hear a decision from them that week, she wrote, and expected them to choose Africa. But she wanted to be sure that they would have a good opportunity whatever they chose.
"Health is of paramount importance, next to that the greatest prospect of comfort and success in business," she continued in her letter. "I am anxious for them to go as soon as possible."
She went on to say that she believed that her slaves would be quite an "acquisition" for the society and Liberia. A breathless report within the national society at the time showed its eagerness to relieve Mrs. Tubman of the "$10,000 provided by her husband for these objects of his bounty."
"They have all been brought up together," said the memo, "are excellent plantation hands; have been accustomed to raise all their own provisions on the cotton farm, but know little of other business ... a number of them are professors of religion, but none can read."
"A more interesting set of colored people of the same number is not, perhaps, to be found anywhere," the memo crowed. "It is supposed that if sold at present prices, they would bring forty thousand dollars."
Clearly, the Tubman people would be quite a catch for the society. The most interesting set of slaves anywhere? And their owner was footing the entire bill for their resettlement? Some of the free blacks applying to the Colonization societies had no means at all for their resettlement.
Furthermore, Gurley was concerned that, in a time of economic downturn, the charitable gifts they counted on would dry up.
"I trust they will not close their ears to the cries of Africa," he wrote of his donors, "but realize the truth, that all the suffering now experienced in christendom by pecuniary failures and embarrassments, is small compared with those endured annually, in that land, since the slave trade first made merchandise of her children."
Mrs. Tubman's proposition, and the money she had to finance it, must have seemed to good to be true. Maybe that's why the Maryland society jumped at it.