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FEBRUARY 12, 2012 3:29PM

For Black History Month: Harriet and Jeremiah

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I posted this essay last year for Black History Month, and it quickly disappeared into OS oblivion.  The theme of this year's Black History Month is "Black Women in America:  Culture and History."  Given this theme, I thought it appropriate to repost this essay.  My apologies to anyone for whom this is a repeat.




“He took me by the hand, as if I had been an old friend.  He told us we were too late for the morning cars to New York, and must wait until the evening, or the next morning.  He invited me to go home with him, assuring me that his wife would give me a cordial welcome.”


These are the words of a 48 year old woman named Harriet Jacobs, recalling an event that had taken place twenty years earlier.  She is referring to the Reverend Jeremiah Durham, whom she had just met for the first time.  In the summer of 1842, Harriet Jacobs left her home in North Carolina and arrived in Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the United States.  She was virtually penniless, owning little but the clothes on her back.  Her poverty, however, was the least of her concerns.  Harriet Jacobs, you see, was a slave.  She was chattel.  She was the property of a lecherous physician in the North Carolina tidewater, a man who had sexually abused her from the time she was 13 or 14 years old.  Following years of tribulation unimaginable to 21st century Americans, she escaped her tormenter and arrived in Philadelphia, a city awash with both Abolitionists and fugitive slave hunters. 

Harriet’s escape from human bondage was assisted by numerous brave men and women, both black and white.  Those who assisted her risked years in prison or worse, but they knew what their humanitarian duty was.  Some who risked their lives were fellow slaves.  Others were affluent abolitionists in the North.  There were even a few white Southerners who, ashamed of their region’s “peculiar institution,” quietly sought to help its most helpless victims.  The man who took Harriet Jacobs’ hand that night in Philadelphia and invited her to his home was none of those.  Jeremiah Durham was a free African-American minister of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia.  Often called the “Mother Bethel” Church, it was possibly the first African-American church in the United States.  The church has a proud history, and by the 1840’s it was playing an important part in the burgeoning abolition movement.


mother bethel church
Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church as it appeared in the 1840's


With Philadelphia situated just a few days by horseback from the slave states of the Upper South, Mother Bethel Church became an important stop on the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad.  Jeremiah Durham was an indispensible friend to men and women like Harriet Jacobs.  His contribution to the liberty of Americans was no less consequential than that of many more famous Americans whose names and accomplishments appear prominently in high school textbooks. 

Jeremiah Durham literally risked his own freedom, and quite possibly his life, by coming to the aid of total strangers like Harriet Jacobs.  How many Harriet Jacobs’s did he meet during his tenure as minister at Mother Bethel Church?  How many hungry, lonely men and women did Jeremiah Durham comfort and feed?  How many terrified, hunted men and women fleeing the venality of bondage did Jeremiah Durham save from the whipping post?  How many lives did Jeremiah Durham save while following the example of his savior, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of one of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me”?

I am reminded of men and women like Harriet Jacobs and Jeremiah Durham during this month America has designated as Black History Month.  As a student of history, I find the stories of men and women like Harriet Jacobs and Jeremiah Durham the ones that animate what could otherwise be dry and sterile.  History is much more than the recitation of great deeds by the powerful men who controlled the destiny of nations like puppet masters in a marionette show.  History is the story of men and women whose names are anonymous, but whose deeds were full of consequence and meaning.

The same year that Jeremiah Durham ensured the freedom of Harriet Jacobs, John Tyler was president of the United States.  Tyler’s administration is rightly recounted in high school history books.  As the first man to assume the presidency on the death of his predecessor, he played an important role in defining executive power in the formative years of our government.  It was during his administration that the abstract concept of “manifest destiny” took a firm hold of the nation’s consciousness.  Tyler’s presence in the history books is certainly appropriate.

As consequential as John Tyler was, however, I wonder if he directly affected as many lives as Jeremiah Durham.  I think not.  Jeremiah Durham was an educated free American of African descent.  Little is known of this man, but we can surmise that he was born into very modest means, and received an education rare for men of his background.  What we know for certain, however, is that he was an active member of abolitionist circles in Philadelphia.  The abolitionist Philadelphia Vigilance Committee regularly met in his home to plan financial and logistical assistance for runaway slaves.  This was a dangerous undertaking, and members of the Vigilance Committee risked imprisonment and bodily harm on a daily basis. 

It seems likely that Jeremiah Durham played a central role in securing the freedom of tens or hundreds of escaped slaves.  It seems likely that, as a minister at Mother Bethel Church, Jeremiah Johnson would have influenced many others to follow his example.  These are accomplishments worthy of the history books. 

The humanitarian contributions of men like Jeremiah Durham and others like him whose names are absent from our textbooks make Black History Month a self-evident necessity.  The bravery and sacrifice of women like Harriet Jacobs, another whose name is absent from every high school text I’ve ever seen, makes me, a white man, both humble and proud to be her American compatriot. 

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The direct, take my hand, let me help kind of aid recounted here is perhaps the ultimate in human behavior. I think of the biblical story of Abraham throwing open all four sides of his tent, inviting in the stranger and saying "Let's eat."

There are good folks who write checks. And there are folks who do nothing. But this guy was a superior human being.

Helping the total stranger. That is rare and its inspirational.
Steve, this is fascinating and makes me want to search further for information about Durham and folks like him. There were stiff penalties in most states for harboring slaves. The people who placed the welfare of their brothers and sisters above their own deserve the title of "hero", and I hope as the discipline of Historic research continues to evolve, reparations on these omissions will be forthcoming. Thanks for a piece of writing!
Thank you for reposting this! I will put it on my Facebook and Digg accounts. R and Zumapick.
Roger, when I read about men like Jeremiah Durham, I am ashamed at my own feeble attempts to do good in this world. A superior human being, rare and inspirational indeed.

Gary, I learned about Harriet and Jeremiah by reading Harriet's autobiography, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" a fascinating first-hand account of slavery, and the corrosive effect on everyone who was touched by that terrible institution. Thank you for your kind words.

Zuma, I'm honored and thrilled that you found this post worthy of recommendation. Thank you.
Always enjoy learning about the unsung heroes of our country, especially in such a cynical time. You bring an important element to this forum.
Lea, there are so many unsung heroes. I am glad to provide a little bit of their music every now and then. Thank you for stopping by.
Thank you for reposting. I appreciated reading it.
FusunA, I'm glad you stopped by, and thank you for your kind comment!
I, too, will be sharing. As you said, these are pieces of history that, unfortunately, are not found in school textbooks. Your ability to bring stories such as this alive is inspiring. R
I remember in the seventies they played the Holocaust miniseries and Roots.

For the past thirty years or so there have been fewer of these and many people have been forgetting stories like this.

Now after the corporations have escalated their corruption to absurd levels they're hearing them again but not from the Mass Media which is still a propaganda machine.

Thanks for the reminder; we can't rely on any powerful institution to address this anymore; at least not until they're reformed.