1919Steel StrikeMexican CommunityHarriet Tubman BookHarriet Tubman PlaySite Map


PLEASE NOTE: The Chicago Metro History Education Center website has moved to its permanent home, at www.chicagohistoryfair.com.

Please update your links and bookmarks. You will be automatically redirected to www.chicagohistoryfair.org in 15 seconds.

INTRODUCTION: This play is about Harriet Tubman and demonstrates how to turn primary sources into a dramatic performance. Included are two freedom songs, and the original document, "Scene in the Life of Harriet Tubman," by Sarah Bradford, which inspired this play. Also, there is a lesson plan to promote further dialogue about anti-slavery issues.

"I Got A Right to Two Things"
A Play about Harriet Tubman

This play is in two parts. The first is an introduction, in which Harriet tells the story of her birth, her escape to freedom, and her travels north, in peril for her life, to lead other slaves to freedom. While Harriet's is the main voice in the first part, some other voices and actors are needed: Fredrick Douglas, a slave catcher offering a reward, a slave family listening for Harriet to arrive, and a slave who wanted to return to slavery.

The second part is one particular story from Harriet's life in which she rescues one Charles Nalle, a fugitive slave up North, from the hands of slave catchers who wanted to return him to his master in Virginia. There are many voices in this piece, but the primary one is the voice of a narrator who leads the audience through two tellings of the story: Harriet's telling and the newspaper account, in which Harriet is dropped from the story. The narrator will close by explaining that this is the way Black History is lost BUT that THIS PLAY is the way Black history is saved.


NOTE: Page numbers in parentheses are keyed to original historical document, "The Autobiography of Harriet Tubman."

(page 6)

NOTE: stage directions are given from the point of view of the audience.

(scene opens on Frederick Douglas, center stage, pen in hand, writing a letter to Harriet Tubman)

DOUGLAS Dear Harriet, I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially when your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the enslaved of your land are known as I know them.

Most that I have done and suffered in our cause has been in public. You have labored in a private way. I have worked in the day, you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes from the approval of the multitude while what you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot sore men and women whom you have led out of the house of bondage and whose heartfelt "God Bless You" has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion and your heroism I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships than you have...

Frederick Douglas,
August 29th
(exit Douglas)

Act One

(Harriet and a well dressed woman seated knee to knee, stage left. The woman is taking notes. Silently sitting on stage right, paying no attention to Harriet as they are separated by 1000 miles, a slave family sits in a cabin)

(page 20)

WOMAN So where were we, Ms. Tubman? Oh yes, you spent the first twenty five years of your life as a slave in Maryland. What did you do there?

TUBMAN I was a field hand, plowing and loading. My master would rent me out, like a old mule, to others who would beat me and curse me.

WOMAN And then one night you slipped away and crossed the line to freedom?

TUBMAN I did. I was free then; but there was no one there to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all was down in Maryland, because by father and mother and brothers and sisters and friends were all there. I was free and THEY should be free. I would make a home in the North and bring them there, God helping me. Oh how I prayed then. I said to the Lord, I'm going to hold stiddy on to you and I know you'll see me through.

WOMAN So you started going back south?

TUBMAN (Harriet moves to center stage. At the end of her talk she indicates the slave family sitting at the left) I worked up North, Philadelphia, in hotels and when I'd get enough money I'd start back, hidin' all the way, and I'd get word to those waiting to take my underground railroad to freedom.

(Page 26) (Slave family in a cabin, listening at night)

MOTHER Listen, can you hear it?

FATHER All I hear is crickets.

MOTHER No listen. It's her. Singing.

FATHER What's she singing? If it's that old..

Moses go down in Egypt
Tell ole Pharo let me go.
Hadn't a been for Adam's fall
Shouldna hate to die at all...

... then that mean the coast ain't clear, there's slave catchers on the road.

MOTHER No wait. It's not that song. It's the other one.

Dark and thorny is the desert
through it the pilgrim makes his way
Yet beyond this vale of sorrow
Lies the fields of endless

Grab the children and let's go. Our Moses, General Harriet Tubman gonna take us to Freedom.

(Page 21)

TUBMAN ( speaking to well dressed woman stage left toward who she moves) I sing that one twice. Then they come out and we start traveling. We always start on Saturday because they can't get our escape in the paper on Sunday and we get a one day jump on the slave catchers.

SLAVE CATCHERS (come on centerstage, exit after lines.) They can't just dissappear into thin air. There's 12,000 dollars goes to the man who brings in Harriet Tubman, Moses they call her, dead or alive. Dead is fine with me.

TUBMAN I went down South 19 times. I started with this idea in my head. There's two things I got a right to and dese are Death or Liberty. One or t' other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty and when the time come for me to go De Lord will let them kill me.

(page 25)

WOMAN What was the escape like?

MOTHER (Slave family and Harriet meet at center stage and pantomime weary walking and hiding). We'd mostly hide out in the woods and swamps during the daylight. Sometimes we'd see those white slavecatchers ride by on the road, tacking up advertisements for them on the fences and trees. And den how we laughed. We was de fools and DEY was the wise men: but we wasn't fools enough to go down the high road in the broad daylight.

TUBMAN We traveled at night, slept in the woods and in the barns and cellars of good peoples, white and Black. That was the underground railroad. It was hard traveling, cross rivers and mountains. Sometimes dese slaves be exhausted, caint walk, and want to go back. But I can't let 'em. Can't let our hiding places be found out.

FUGITIVE SLAVE I'm done, finished. We'll never make it. Master wasn't so bad. He was gonna let me work in the house and drive his carriage. I'm going back. I don't want no more of this freedom.

TUBMAN (pulls a revolver out of her dress) I say dead men tells no tales. Go on or die. And so we'd go on North and after a while we'd get there. I never lost a single soul on our journey. There's two things I got a right to, Death or Liberty. One or th' other I mean to have.

(Cast sings song "Lifeline")

"One night I dreamed I was in slavery 
Bout 1850 was the time, 
Sorrow was the only sign 
Nothin' around to ease my mind. 
Out of the night there come a lady 
leading a distant pilgrim band 
Firmly did this woman stand, 
Lifted me up and took my hand, sayin'
Come on up, I got a lifeline
Come on up to this train of mine 
Come on up, I got a lifeline 
Come on up to this train of mine 
They said her name was Harriet Tubman 
and she drove for the underground railroad. 

Act Two

Harriet Tubman and the Rescue of Charles Nalle

WOMAN (stage left, reading from her notes) In the spring of 1860 Harriet Tubman was requested by Mr. Gerrit Smith to go to Boston to attend a large Anti Slavery meeting. On her way she stopped in Troy, New York, to visit a cousin, and while there, the colored people were one day startled with the news that a fugitive slave, by the name of Charles Nalle, had been followed by his master, and that he was already in the hands of officers and was to be taken back to the South. (page 88)

HARRIET (center stage, addresses the audience) Well, as soon as I heard about it I lit out for the government office where they was keepin' him and I was tellin' everybody along the way. They was already some peoples there but I went through 'em, and upstairs to where they was keepin' him. There was so many people downstairs the officers were afraid to bring him down even though they had a wagon waiting.

FREE BLACK IN THE CROWD (stage right and pointing above Harriet as if at a building) What do you see? (craning his neck) Look! I see Ms. Tubman's bonnet in the window.

SECOND FREE BLACK IN THE CROWD I can't see anything. They've taken him out another way, depend on that.

FIRST FREE BLACK No, there stands Moses yet. As long as she is there he is safe.

HARRIET I saw that it was gonna take a lot to rescue poor Nalle. I sent some little boys out to spread the word in the town. The bells started ringing, more people came til the whole street was a dense mass of people.

POLICE OFFICER (center stage) Come on. Clear the stairs. We've got to get this man down!

HARRIET Some of them went back down the stairs but I made like I was too old to move.

POLICE OFFICER Come on old woman, you must get out of this. If you can't get down alone I will have someone help you.

HARRIET I stood my ground. Then someone made an offer to buy Charles Nalle from his master. "$1200" his master said but when the money was raised in the crowd he said "$1500". The crowd got angrier. Then a gentleman raised a window and called out "$200 dollars for his rescue but not one cent to his master!"

POLICE OFFICER (to the crowd) Alright, if you make a lane for him we'll bring him out the front way! (exit and reenter with Nalle)

FREE BLACK IN CROWD There he is! In between the US Marshals.

HARRIET I got up from my stooping on the stairs and as soon as they got outside I yelled "Here he comes Take him" to the crowd. I jumped down the stairs, knocked one of them policemen over and put my arms around Charles Nalle. I was yelling "Drag us out! Drag him to the River! Drown him! But don't let them have him!"

FREE BLACK (moving down the street) Where are they? They been knocked down! I saw that boy's head but I can't see it no more!

HARRIET When we got knocked down I took that old sun bonnet off my head and put it on Charles Nalle. They couldn't anymore recognize him. But we was all being pushed and shoved down the street together, the police , the crowd, the master, and me still hangin' on to him. He was screamin cause those handcuffs was cuttin' into his hands. I lost my coat and my shoes but I helt on until we got to the river and into a boat.(make a circuit of the stage as if in a crowd, shouting, pulling. Return to center and mime shoving Nalle off in the boat.)

POLICE There he is! In that boat! Telegraph to the other side and they'll grab him there. The crowd will try to follow but they'll be too late. We'll have him! (exit left)

FREE BLACKS IN THE CROWD Quick. Over the bridge. They've grabbed him again! Now where have they taken him?(exit right)

HARRIET I finally got across the river with the rest of 'em but we couldn't find Charles Nalle. Then I asked some school children who pointed out the house they had him in. We rushed up the stairs. The police were firing down.

FREE BLACKS (enter from right) Look out! They're shooting! Oh Lord, two of 'em's hit. Some got in. That one's got an axe to break down the door. Ms. Tubman's up there too!. Look! they're coming out. She's got Charles Nalle again!

HARRIET I dragged him down the stairs, about dead after being pushed and shoved, manacled hands and feet. When we got out on the street there was a gentleman driving a wagon with a fine horse. We told him what was happening and he jumped from the seat saying " That is a blood horse. Drive him til he drops". So we threw poor Charles Nalle in, some of his friends jumped in after and drove him off to safety. (Harriet moves off to right with crowd)

WOMAN (to LISTENER seated knee to knee with HER on stage left) Well, when Harriet told me this story I could hardly believe it. It seemed too wonderful to believe. So I wrote the Troy newspaper to see if they'd reported the story. Here's what they said... .


"Yesterday afternoon the streets of this city and West Troy were made the scenes of unexampled excitement. For the first time since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law an attempt was made to carry its provisions into effect and the result was a terrific encounter between the officers and the prisoner's friends, the triumph of mob law and the final rescue of the fugitive....

Charles Nalle, the fugitive, who was the cause of all this excitement, was a slave on the plantation of B.W. Hansborough, in Culpepper County, Virginia til the 19th of October 1858 when he made his escape... Nalle was often seen by H.F. Averill who communicated with his reputed owner in Virginia and gave the knowledge that led to the whereabouts of the fugitive...He was arrested by United States Marshal J. W. Holmes and taken before US Commissioner Miles Beach."

Now wait just a minute! They've got the name of the fugitive, same as Harriet's story, but they also give us the name of the man that turned poor Charles Nalle in, and the name of his master, and the name of the marshal and the judge. And called it the triumph of mob law!!!

LISTENER Go on read some more.

WOMAN Well, it says here..." Meanwhile angry discussions commenced. Some favored rescue and others favored law and order. Mr. Brockway, a lawyer had his coat torn for expressing his sentiments...The crowd at this time numbered nearly a thousand persons. Many of them were Black and a good share were of the female sex."

LISTENER Maybe that Harriet Tubman was in that crowd!

WOMAN I expect she was. No. Wait! Here she is. "As soon as the officers and their prisoner emerged from the door an old negro, who had been standing at the bottom of the stairs shouted 'Here they come' and the crowd made a terrific rush at the party."

LISTENER That's her for sure but why don't they tell us her name. They sure told us everyone else's!

WOMAN It ends this way " At last the door was pulled open by an immense Negro, and in a moment he was felled by a hatchet in the hands of Sheriff Morrison; but the body of the fallen man blocked up the door so that it could not be shut and a friend of the prisoner pulled him out."

LISTENER There's Harriet again!

WOMAN Hush! Let me finish. "Poor fellow", it says. "He might as well say, 'Save me from my friends'. Amid the pulling and hauling the iron had cut into his arms, which were bleeding profusely, and he could hardly walk, owing to fatigue. He has since arrived safely in Canada."

LISTENER Don't that beat all? They say the slave caused the trouble, blame his rescuers for the pain caused by the manacles, and give everybody's name but Harriet' s. They got the thing turned upside down. I'm going to tell this story HER way.

WOMAN Harriet said...

HARRIET TUBMAN (enter center stage). Ain't but two things I got a right to. Death and Liberty and I mean to have one or th' other.

ALL ACTORS SING "LIFELINE"(all actors enter and group center stage for final song)

Out of the night
there came a  lady
leading a distant pilgrim band
Firmly did this woman stand
lifted me up and took my hand
sayin come on up
I got a life line.
Come on up to this train of mine
Come on up
I got a lifeline
Come on up to this train of mine
They said her name was Harriet Tubman
And she drove for the Underground Railroad.

Staging the Harriet Tubman play

1. The FIRST thing to do is to learn the lines. Yes, this means learning them by heart, memorizing them. In cases where individual speeches are rather long, the character can read the lines. In this case, Frederick Douglas can read the letter he is writing to Harriet Tubman. The "Reader" can read the newspaper articles. However, in order to get a DRAMATIC reading the speech has to be practiced until you almost know it by heart.

2. The SECOND thing to do is to stage the play. That is, you have to figure out who stands where on the stage, who leaves and who comes on the stage and WHEN? In this way you establish "cues", that is ,words that people recognize as their signal to come in, go out, start or stop talking. Sometimes people will need something to do while others are talking.

3. The THIRD thing to do is rehearse the play. Rehearse it until you know it by heart and it is smooth. Until all the words ring true and clear and easy to understand. Perhaps you will want to get a practice audience to listen and give you some responses.

4. The FOURTH thing to do is to get ready the costumes and the set, that is, any things you want on stage to set the scene. For instance, I have some slides of Harriet Tubman you might want to show on the back wall of the stage for a backdrop.

5. Finally, and FIFTH, you will want to practice the music in the play.

There is one more step to doing this play. You need to talk about it, need to figure out whether this is just an interesting event out of our history or whether it could be saying something about us today? Ask yourself...

"What if Harriet Tubman came down to Cottage Grove and 37th in Chicago today? What would she say"?

Would she say her people don't have much more freedom now than when they were slaves? That is, freedom in terms of opportunity. What would it take for a rescue from these mean streets in 1989? What could Harriet represent in terms of someone or something that was going to lead you to freedom like in the old days.? Would she be the Spirit of Struggle or Education or something else? Would you still have to do the walking yourself or would someone do it for you? If you got free of these mean streets would you look back to the less fortunate like Harriet did? Does Harriet's statement "I got a right to two things..." mean anything to your life? What if you made a third part to the play? "If Harriet Tubman came down to these mean streets today..." .

For most slaves, the only hope for freedom was escape. Once they were free, hundreds of the ex-slaves joined with abolitionists and sympathetic Northerners to set up an "Underground Railway," a trail of secret hiding places - barns, cellars, churches, and caverns - leading to the free North. Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave and "conductor" on the railway, went south nineteen times, risking her freedom and her life, to bring others out of slavery.

"I never run my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger." - Harriet Tubman

Half a dozen times in this book we've given you a song which, though written in modern times, tells a story of the old days. This song was written by a fine young black composer in Boston in the 1970's. - P.S.

2. Hundreds of miles we traveled onward
Bathering slaves from town to town,
Seeking every lost and found,
Setting those free who once were bound.
Somehow my heart was growing weaker;
I fell by the wayside's sinking sand.
Firmly did this lady stand,
Lifted me up and took my hand, singing,
3. Who are those children dressed in red?
They must be the ones Moses led.
Who are those children dressed in red?
They must be the ones Moses led.