“Mary Had a Baby” commemorates Harriet Tubman and the United States Colored Troops who destroyed major confederate supplies and rescued nearly 800 people from slavery.
Background of the Combahee River Raid
Tubman partnered with the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of the United States Colored Troops to plan and execute this raid to destroy wealthy confederate rice plantations and rescue enslaved people.
First, she forged a relationship with the local enslaved community among whom were the folks who had placed torpedoes in the river to blow up Union boats. They gave her the torpedo locations. She also spread the word throughout the community that folks should be ready to escape to freedom when the raid took place.
On the night of June 1st, 1863, and into the 2nd, Tubman and around 300 men including the Second South Carolina Volunteers and a Rhode Island Regiment set off on three ships: the John Adams, the Sentinel, and the Harriet A. Weed. When the Sentinel ran aground troops from that ship transferred to the other two boats.
They proceeded upriver to the plantations where they successfully set fire to and destroyed the houses, mills, and outbuildings; and took or torched the stores of commodity rice and cotton, as well as supplies of potatoes, corn, and livestock.
Harriet Tubman rescued to freedom nearly 800 people.
They then went on to rescue to freedom nearly 800 people. Folks didn’t at first believe, but when the ships actually turned up, they were soon on the verge of being sunk, so vigorous was the response. Ms. Tubman brought order, calming folks with a song. She said about that day:
I nebber see such a sight. We laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed. Here you’d see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it jus’ as she’d taken it from de fire, young one hangin’ on behind, one han’ roun’ her forehead to hold on, t’other han’ diggin’ into de rice-pot, eatin’ wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag with a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one an’ a black one; we took ’em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and the black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin’ roun’ der necks; ‘pears like I never see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin’ behin’, all loaded; pigs squealin’, chickens screamin’, young ones squallin’.Harriet Tubman
Mary Had A Baby
Storyteller Corinthia starts her tale with the 1863 Combahee River Raid. In her story, the song her family and neighbors waited for was the now-classic Spiritual “Mary Had a Baby.” When they heard it they knew “Moses” had really come.
Corinthia follows the trail and trials of her family and community to the Union camps, transitioning to freedom, learning to read and write, getting paid to work, and being granted the right to vote (men). She celebrates the 16 Black congressmen of the Reconstruction era and highlights their accomplishments – roads, public schools, 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and Civil Rights bills.
Setbacks also are duly noted: the withdrawal of the Union Army troops from the South, the re-establishment of the Southern landowner class and the Black Codes which practically re-established slavery in all areas of life: land ownership, voting, work and personal liberties.
Spirituals and work songs are interwoven throughout. We had great fun with our audiences singing along at Hofstra University, Gowanus Dredgers, Bayou Theatre and The Essex and Portsmouth Sea Music Festivals.
“Mary Had a Baby” is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.