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For Black History Month, theGrio decided to track down the descendants of well-known African-American historical figures to find out what it is like being descended from some of most the influential people in American history. Here is what Pauline Copes Johnson and Deirdre Stanford, the great-grandniece and great-great grandniece of Harriet Tubman, had to say about the joys and burdens of bearing a famous ancestor’s legacy.
Pauline Copes-Johnson,85, is the great-grandniece, and her daughter Deirdre Stanford, 64, is the great-great grandniece of Harriet Tubman. Copes-Johnson has been giving presentations about Harriet Tubman’s life for over ten years. Tubman is recognized as one of the “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, freeing more than 70 slaves during the Civil War.
How did you find out you were related to Harriet Tubman?
Pauline: I was 25 years old before I knew that I was related to Aunt Harriett and ever since then I’ve been researching her… I didn’t know a thing about [Aunt Harriet]. The only thing I could attribute [why they did not tell me] was she was trying to keep the secret that Aunt Harriet was in Auburn. It was a secret because the confederates wanted her and although she was dead, they would come after the relatives. They thought I’d give it away because I was very young then… I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe I was so lucky to be a relative of Aunt Harriet and then I started my research.
Deirdre: I found out from my mother. I thought it was just an honor to be a part of the family. [I heard] stories from my mom and sometimes we’d all be together at a family reunion or picnic and they’d be telling us the stories they learned about Aunt Harriet.
What is something people don’t know about Harriet Tubman? Any funny stories or anecdotes?
Deirdre: All I know, Aunt Harriet didn’t take no stuff – if she said you were going to freedom she said you were going to go. She would get that old gun and tell you and that you were not turning back. [Aunt Harriet said] “I’ve never lost a passenger and I’m not going to start now.”
Is having her legacy a burden or an inspiration?
Pauline: I don’t think it was a terrible thing to live up to her legacy. I think that was meant for us to do. I don’t think they do enough [in schools]. I think black history should be celebrated every day of the year, every single day because on my part I’m trying to establish that. Otherwise I think people should know about ancestors, where they come, how they were treated.
Deirdre: It’s an inspiration I think, but it can also be a burden because it’s responsibility too. I think it’s a responsibility that if you know things you should tell people about it so they’ll know about that’s going on or about her life and how things were back then and how we can make things better for everybody.
How are you or your family keeping Harriet Tubman’ legacy alive?
Pauline: I give presentations just like I did today for schools here in New York and schools in Auburn. I was awarded the citation for the civil war people because of Aunt Harriet. I was chosen and featured in USA Today newspaper…I love it, I love doing [speeches], I’ve been to hospitals, senior citizen homes, agencies. I’ve been to far west as Albuquerque New Mexico and the far south and Florida.
Deirdre: When we have the Harriet Tubman pilgrimage, that’s when all the relatives are there. We’re all around telling stories about Aunt Harriet. It’s just a great time for me to learn more about her legacy.
How would you hope Harriet Tubman would be remembered today?
Pauline: That she was a great woman. That she was compassionate and she did her best to help free her friends and neighbors and her own race and I think she was wonderful. She was the woman who helped change the United States.
Deirdre: I hope they remember that she was a woman of God trying to bring the people out to freedom. She was very strong and courageous and she just wanted everyone should be free. She didn’t believe that a human being should own another human being. I think it brings a message of freedom, I think she wanted everyone to be free. I don’t think we should have anyone in bondage. We should all be free.
To read more profiles from The Descendants Project, click here.
Follow Brittany Tom on Twitter @brittanyrtom