Harriet Tubman and Sarah Hopkins Bradford: Women of Moral Courage from Auburn’s Past

By Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D.

In honor of the approaching Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast & Awards, we will lift up stories of women from our first 200 years as we look forward to celebrating women of moral courage in our own time.

Story #1: Sarah Hopkins Bradford (1818-1912) and Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

In 1818, the same year that Auburn Seminary was born, so, too, was Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Over the course of her very long life, Sarah would change the course of American history by composing two biographies of Harriet Tubman, which would propel the former slave from Maryland to national fame by telling of her heroic leadership in shepherding 70 freedom seekers to safety. Indeed, it was Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who dubbed Tubman “the Moses of her people” – a title that lives on today.

During the Civil War, Sarah Hopkins Bradford moved temporarily to Auburn, NY from her neighboring hometown of Geneva, NY to spend time with her brother, Samuel, a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Auburn Seminary.

Sarah was not in a good way. Having mothered six children, she was bereft in the wake of her husband’s abandonment of the family and soon took to teaching Sunday School at Auburn’s Central Presbyterian Church.

Founded in 1861, the church was a break off of some 70 folks from the 2nd Presbyterian Church in town that had refused to support abolition. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Hopkins was instrumental in the founding of this new church, where his sister came to teach Harriet Tubman’s parents and where Harriet Tubman would be married to Charles Nelson Davis in 1869.

Tubman’s parents had settled in Auburn, along with their daughter, in a house Harriet purchased on loan for $1200 from Senator William Henry Seward, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State in 1861.

Auburn was one of many small towns sprinkled throughout upstate New York in what became known as, the “Burned-Over District” for its hotbed of social reform, including abolition, women’s suffrage, temperance, spiritualism and health care, which had traveled like wildfire in the 1820-40s. (Seneca Falls, where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, is fewer than 15 miles from Auburn.)

Stitching together notes from her many interviews of Tubman, Sarah Hopkins Bradford wrote Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) and Harriet Tubman, Moses of Her People (1886). Proceeds from sales of the second book raised funds for the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn. Professor Samuel M. Hopkins wrote the preface to the book, which has been re-issued over twenty times and is still in print.

Sarah Hopkins Bradford amplified Harriet Tubman’s voice and in so doing preserved the humanitarian vision of an American heroine. Her legacy calls Auburn to action at such a time as this, as we build together a better future story of our nation.

Carole B. Balin is Senior Director of Special Projects at Auburn Seminary and is currently engaged in bringing Auburn’s best to bear for its 200th anniversary in 2018.


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