'Harriet Tubman' visits Harrisburg

HARRISBURG – A powerful singing voice fills the air as a woman dressed in late 19th Century clothing and carrying a spiral walking stick comes into view, each of her steps conveying both humility and dignity.

Harriet Tubman has arrived in the community room of the Harrisburg District Library Saturday afternoon, and begins to tell her story to those gathered in the room.

“Good afternoon. How’s ye be?” she asks the audience. “I’m going to tell you the story of how I became the conductor of the Underground Railroad.”

Marlene Rivero, who portrays Harriet Tubman, has been featured throughout Illinois and surrounding states for a number of years. Her performance Saturday ties in with Black History Month.

Rivero said she first began doing the historical reenactment as the result of a U.S. Forest Service talent show.

“I did it as part of an amateur night training in St. Louis for people that had various talents who worked for the Forest Service,” Rivero said. “I got up and did Harriet Tubman and I thought that the people watching it thought is was pretty good. I got a standing ovation.”

About nine months later, she said, her friend and co-worker, Mary McCorvie, encouraged her to bring Harriet Tubman to life in order to share the story of the former slave who became an American icon of freedom.

Rivero, of Grand Chain, retired from the Forest Service in 2011. Since that time, she said, she does her portrayal of Tubman and other historical figures on a full-time basis.

As Tubman, she tells how she received a head injury as a young child, how she and her family were treated and how she decided she would escape slavery, or “going for her freedom.”

She also shares how she made repeated trips back into Maryland, a slave state at the time, to free members of her family and others.  One important tool she employed was her singing: melodies from old spirituals were modified and sung out loud to give instructions – or sometimes warnings – to escaping slaves.

After her performance, Rivero anwered questions from the audience regarding Tubman. In one of her answers, she revealed what she called a significant coincidence.

In 2016, the U.S Treasury announced Tubman’s likeness would be featured on the front of the U.S. $20 bill beginning sometime in 2020.

Tubman, in her later years, received a pension after her second husband’s death in the amount of $12 a month. Later, she received her own pension of $8 a month.

“I think that they chose to put her on the $20 bill is significant for that reason,” Rivero said.