Harriet Tubman Warns "Kill the Snake Before It Kills You"

Harriet Tubman was among the best known conductors of the Underground Railroad, a network of enslaved people, free blacks, and white sympathizers that assisted thousands of runaway slaves escape north. During the Civil War, Tubman offered her services to the Union army, first as a nurse and cook, and later as an armed scout and spy. In the allegory below, Tubman warns that the Confederacy would never be defeated unless slavery was defeated first. Tubman could not read or write, but her words were written down by Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist and women's rights activist from Massachusetts. Child met Tubman in a Union camp in Hampton, Virginia where both women volunteered helping "contraband" slaves.

[The North] may send the flower of their young men down South, to die of the fever in the summer, and of the ague in the winter. They may send them one year, two year, three year, till they tired of sending, or till they use up all the young men. All no use!...

God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South until he does right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I’m a poor Negro but this Negro can tell Master Lincoln how to save money and young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free. Suppose there was an awful big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. Folks all scared, because you may die. You send for doctor to cut the bite; but the snake rolled up there, and while doctor is doing it, he bites you again. The doctor cuts out that bite; but while he’s doing it, the snake springs up and bites you again, and so he keeps doing it, till you kill him. That’s what Master Lincoln ought to know.

Focus Questions

What does the snake represent in Tubman's allegory?

What does Tubman believe Lincoln must do to defeat the Confederacy?

Source | Letter from Lydia Maria Child to John G. Whittier, January 21, 1862, in Letters from Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), 161.

Creator | Harriet Tubman
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Harriet Tubman, “Harriet Tubman Warns "Kill the Snake Before It Kills You",” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 19, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1760.