Harriet Tubman’s Shawl

This is the 9th and last in my special series on artifacts from the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.

Finally, as my last look at the treasures at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that have a connection to the history of the North Carolina coast, I want to look at a silk lace and linen shawl. By itself I don’t suppose it’s anything rare or valuable. But in this case it’s special because of who owned it: one of greatest freedom fighters in American history, Harriet Tubman.

Courtesy, National Museum of African American History & Culture

Courtesy, National Museum of African American History & Culture

A gift from Queen Victoria of England, the shawl sent shivers down my spine when I first saw it.

I’m reaching more than a little to include the shawl among the museum’s artifacts that have a connection to the North Carolina coast, but I can’t resist.

I say that because Tubman did have a link to the North Carolina coast, but it’s a very indirect one:  her second husband,  Nelson Davis, came from Elizabeth City, N.C. before the Civil War.

He was a brick mason by trade.

He had apparently been enslaved there all his life. But in or about 1861, Davis escaped from Elizabeth City and traveled north. Two years later, he enlisted in the 8th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, and fought in the Union army during the Civil War.

After the war, he met Tubman at the boardinghouse that she ran in Auburn, New York. They were married in 1869.

Harriet Tubman, her adopted daughter Gertie Davis and her husband Nelson Davis, 1870s or '80s. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library.

Harriet Tubman, her adopted daughter Gertie Davis and her husband Nelson Davis, 1870s or ’80s (all on far left). Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library.

Two scholars that I have tremendous respect for, Kate Clifford Larson and Wanda Hunt-McLean, first brought Nelson Davis’s connection to the North Carolina coast to my attention.

Larson is a history professor at Simmons College in Boston and the author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero

Hunt-McLean is an award-winning public historian that has labored tirelessly to bring national recognition to northeastern North Carolina’s role in the Underground Railroad.

Very little else is known about Nelson Davis, but I was still excited to learn that Harriet Tubman, approaching her 50th year and with her days of fighting slavery behind her, made a home with a man from the North Carolina coast.

The couple adopted a baby girl named Gertie a few years later, and they remained together until Nelson’s death in 1888.

I wonder about them: I wonder what, if anything, she told him about her escape from slavery and all those trips that she made back to rescue others.

I wonder what, if anything, she told him about John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry.

I wonder what, if anything, she told him about her days as a scout and spy for the Union army during the Civil War.

I wonder what, if anything, she told him about leading the raid that liberated all those hundreds of enslaved people at Combahee Ferry down in South Carolina.

I wonder, too, what, if anything, he told her about his life in slavery down here on the North Carolina coast.

I wonder what, if anything, he told her about his escape from Elizabeth City and how he managed to reach the northern states. I wonder what, if anything, he told her about the people and places he left behind.

I wonder what, if anything, he told her about his service in the Civil War: the Battle of Olustee, Deep Bottom, Fair Oaks, the trenches of Petersburg and Richmond, the Appomattox Campaign, the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his army– his regiment was at all of them.

Maybe they shared their stories. Maybe they were glad to have someone who understood without having to be told.

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