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Storyteller Brings Tubman to Life

January 19, 2012
The Associated Press

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. - A Tucker County storyteller and historian Wednesday used interactive spirituals and a variety of props as she spun the harrowing and inspiring tale of a slave woman who ventured south during the Civil War to help other newly freed slaves fight for freedom.

Ilene Evans portrayed Civil War heroine Harriet Tubman to a group of students and teachers at Union Elementary School in Upshur County as part of a West Virginia Culture and History grant.

The event also was sponsored in part by the Bicentennial Inn in Buckhannon.

Tubman traveled by boat from New York to South Carolina during the early days of the Civil War, working as a soldier, spy, cook and nurse to both the colored and white troops fighting against the Confederate Army. Evans told Tubman's stories of tending to fallen soldiers, gathering information behind enemy lines, often engaging the students to sing along with using traditional spirituals.

She told of Tubman being with Col. Robert Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the unit featured in the acclaimed movie "Glory," when it stormed Fort Wagner in South Carolina and engaged in the brutal hand-to-hand combat that resulted in heavy casualties.

"We saw the lightning; that was the guns," Evans said in her role as Tubman. "We heard the thunder; that was the big guns."

Evans said she hopes the presentation left a lasting impression on the youngsters, and she said having them become a part of the story will make it much more meaningful.

"They may not understand it all," she said after her performance. "But they will never forget Harriet."

Evans has been portraying Tubman since 1991 when she created "General Moses: Stories from the life of Harriet Tubman" as a way to call attention to the role Tubman played in the Underground Railroad.

"When she emancipated herself, it wasn't enough," Evans said. "Freedom is not something you get and you have it. It's a fragile thing. You have to keep it. It was important for her to liberate the rest of the community."

Evans said the lessons Tubman taught more than a century ago are still valid today. She said Tubman worked to bring education and jobs to the newly freed slaves so they could have economic and other opportunities to improve their lives.

"We still need that today," she explained. "We still have people who think that freedom is free. Oppression can take many forms. We give our freedoms away - we don't guard it. Nobody has to take it away; we give it away."

Evans will continue her stay at the school through the end of the week, portraying Tubman in other scenarios and conducting educational workshops for teachers and students.

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