Film Review - Harriet (copy)

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in a scene from "Harriet." Glen Wilson/Focus Features via AP

The life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman made its way to the big screen last weekend, shining a spotlight on her years as a "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, bringing enslaved people to freedom after escaping slavery herself. The film, "Harriet," has also given a jolt to a South Carolina community's effort to recognize a lesser-known part of Tubman's life.

During the Civil War, Tubman lived in Beaufort, worked as a Union spy and led a raid that freed more than 700 people in one night. 

Since the summer of 2016, the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort has been working to recognize that history with a monument at their Craven Street church.

Their pastor, the Rev. Kenneth Hodges, said this week that they're on track to build the monument next year and have already seen a boost in interest after the film's release. 

"I think the movie is going to draw a lot more people to her presence in Beaufort," Hodges said.

Their plans include a towering statue of Tubman accompanied by educational materials. A building to the right of the monument could be used as an interpretive center, Hodges said. 

Of the about $500,000 the church needs to build it, about a third has been raised and other pledges have been promised, Hodges said. The primary focus up until now has been educating people about why a monument should be built there.

Beaufort Harriet Tubman Monument rendering

The Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street in Beaufort plans to build a new monument to Harriet Tubman by the end of 2020. Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects/Provided rendering

The film, which started playing in theaters nationwide on Friday, focuses on Tubman's escape from enslavement and her years freeing enslaved people via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe homes that allowed people to escape to free states. 

The movie had a better-than-expected opening at the box office. It was tracking to bring in $9 million in its opening weekend but instead grossed $12 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter

Hodges said he's been following along with the movie's progress since the beginning. Historian Kate Clifford Larson, who worked on the film, has spoken about Tubman at the Beaufort church and, when the film's release date was approaching, Hodges contacted her to ask about setting up preview screenings before the official release. 

The film's producers immediately agreed, Hodges said.

Last week, about 150 teenagers from schools across four counties were invited to screen the movie for free a couple days before its actual release. The event was funded by two earlier previews held at movie theaters in Charleston and Bluffton.

Hodges has long been an advocate of Tubman's South Carolina story. Back in 2006, while he was serving in the state legislature, he sponsored a bill to name the Highway 17 bridge over the Combahee River in honor of her. 

Monuments and memorials to Tubman already exist throughout the country, from Manhattan to Mesa, Ariz. Two national historical parks also honor her, one in central New York and another in Maryland.

But Tubman's impression is still largely invisible in South Carolina, though she spent critical years here during the Civil War. 

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


In November 1861, Union forces took control of Beaufort. That spring, Tubman moved there to aid newly freed people who were working to establish their own churches, schools and businesses.

To make money, Tubman started cooking food to sell to Union soldiers and established a washing house. She hired freed women at both businesses. 

After becoming more oriented with the area, Tubman started gathering intelligence for the Union as a spy. Then, in June 1863, she made history in the Combahee River Raid.

In what has been recognized as the first and only time a woman planned and executed an armed expedition during the Civil War, Tubman led troops in freeing more than 700 enslaved people from plantations along the river. Some historians believe that, after the raid, the newly freed people gathered at the Tabernacle Church on Craven Street, Hodges said. 

Several of Beaufort's most prominent historic sites have Craven Street addresses, like the Beaufort Arsenal, the Secession House and, most recently, the visitor's center for the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park. Locals and tourists pass by the church "almost constantly," making it an ideal place for a monument, Hodges said. 

The church is already home to one notable memorial: a bust of Robert Smalls who is also buried there. Smalls was born into enslavement in Beaufort but seized his freedom by stealing a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor. He later became one of the first African Americans to serve in Congress.

Buoyed by the film release, the church launched a new fundraising campaign for the monument this month. They're asking for $20 donations over a 20-day period — a nod to the effort to replace President Andrew Jackson's likeness with Tubman's on the $20 bill. Donations can be made on their website, www.harriettubmanmonument.com.

Hodges said they were hopeful they could complete the monument in time for the anniversary of the Combahee Raid in June but said it's more likely an unveiling will happen near the end of next year.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.