Murfreesboro's June LaGreen vividly portrays Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor, at the first-ever 'Boro International Festival at Cannonsburgh in September. JOHN BUTWELL / The Murfreesboro Post
A passion for encouraging young children is at the heart of everything that Murfreesboro's June LaGreen does, she says.
LaGreen is best known around Rutherford County for her impersonations of Harriet Tubman, the fugitive slave and famed Underground Railroad conductor who led dozens of fellow African Americans north from the South to freedom - and "never lost a passenger."
It's a role LaGreen performs convincingly, even though she's a tall, slender woman - while the real-life Tubman was shorter and stockier.
However, LaGreen also does many other things to teach kids how children had to act in the time Tubman lived - and the peril they faced as fugitive slaves.
"I (as Tubman) ask for volunteers," she says. "Then I tell them they have to do exactly as I say, to be safe."
'Obey your parents'
When the children agree, LaGreen adds that they should also obey their own parents since they also tell the children what to do to be safe.
LaGreen uses the performances as a vehicle to encourage creativity in her audience, too.
"I have a passion for children, for encouraging them to be the best they can be," she explains, "so they can be what God meant them to be."
She performs at schools, churches and community events. During a recent one at a school, she noticed a conflict in the bleachers. One of the boys was arguing with a teacher.
The boy was refusing to take his hoodie off his head - and eventually, the teacher asked him to leave the gym.
"I was so concerned," LaGreen says. "He came stomping down the bleacher steps. He really needed someone to go talk to him."
She adds that she thinks many defiant children who end up in jail as young adults are actually misdirected leaders.
Moved to 'Boro in 2003
But impersonating Tubman is only one of the things that make LaGreen's life full. She also helps Earthel - her husband of nearly 50 years - run the family business, LaGreen's Masonry on Heritage Park Drive.
The couple had a successful business selling vinyl mailboxes in Michigan, where she was born and raised near Detroit.
But they came to Murfreesboro in 2003 to sell mailboxes here, switching to brick instead of vinyl after they had a large order of them delivered here - only to discover Tennesseans prefer brick.
Mailboxes led to every kind of masonry work that homeowners and builders might want done, LaGreen explains. But the biggest reason they came here was to join their daughter and son-in- law Jewel and Ben Tankard - co-pastors of the Destiny Center on Memorial Boulevard.
Plans tea party at church
LaGreen is also active in the church. She's currently working on a special tea party for girls 6-12 years old.
"We try to do something like this at least once a year," she explains. LaGreen and another woman will teach the girls about traditional skills, she adds.
"I will ask them to raise their hand if they have ever sewed a button on a piece of clothing," she says. "I don't expect many of them will have done that."
She'll give each girl a piece of fabric, several buttons, and needles and thread. Then she'll teach them to thread a needle and sew a button onto the fabric. "Then they can use the other buttons to decorate the piece of cloth," she says.
To teach Fisk Jubilee song
The second teacher will instruct the girls about making healthy snacks. LaGreen also hopes to teach them the a cappella song "Rockin' Jerusalem" - originally recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the historic spiritual-performing choir at Nashville's Fisk University.
LaGreen carries books with her everywhere she goes, too. And at one point, she was sitting waiting for a flight when she got into a conversation with a group of college students.
She asked them if they'd like her to read a story to them - and when they said yes, she read them "Peter Rabbit," even though it's considered a "children's story."
"They all listened and seemed to like the story," she adds. "I think we all like having someone read to us."
Tubman on $20 thrills her
But her favorite stories are about Tubman. And she says she's elated that Tubman's life is about to be commemorated on the $20 bill.
"Hers is the most compelling story of all," LaGreen says.
The biography, "Harriet Tubman: A Freedom Trailblazer," that LaGreen wrote is available locally at the Oaklands antebellum mansion on North Maney Street - where LaGreen also frequently performs her impression of Tubman.
One of her best stories about the Underground Railroad conductor has to do with the prophetic dreams Tubman had after being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an angry master before she escaped from slavery.
'Scar on forehead'
The vicious attack left Tubman with a lifelong scar on her forehead - which is why she often wore a bandana to hide the distinctive mark from slave catchers, LaGreen explains.
Tubman's mother was able to nurse her back to health - and soon after that, she started leading slaves to freedom.
On one such escape, Tubman came to a hilltop where she recognized the river below from one of her dreams.
"She was leading a group," LaGreen relates. "She started across the river. First the water came to her knees - and the others asked if she had ever crossed here before, but she just kept on walking. When the water came up to her waist, and then to her shoulders - she still kept walking."
Her followers weren't following - but Tubman believed in her dream and kept walking.
Then the water started getting shallower, and the others followed her across to freedom.
'I become her'
"When I perform, I become her in my mind," LaGreen says. "I just do what I'm led to do. No one gave her a plan."
Tubman learned many of the tricks that got her followers through to freedom from her father. "She listened to her father, so she was able to do what she did," LaGreen says. "He was a naturalist and taught her all about the woods and survival."
For instance, Tubman's dad taught her to carry a stick and poke it ahead of her at night to check for rabbit holes or, even worse, iron traps that might be waiting in unfamiliar woods, LaGreen explains.
It also didn't hurt that Tubman apparently had extraordinary night vision, LaGreen adds - revealing just one more fascinating tidbit that she has discovered about the heroic abolitionist from a wide variety of research sources.
Simply put, LaGreen loves to learn. "I'm a student," she says. "Every book I can find, I read. If there's anything in it about Harriet Tubman - I add it to my repertoire."
She also has learned to say "thank you" in 12 different languages - and is currently studying Spanish and French. She expects the Spanish to come in handy when her family goes to Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She was also looking to her future when she met Earthel in 1966. "He was working for the Crippled Children's Foundation," she recalls. "I would go with him sometimes, and everybody loved him. In fact, that's part of why I married him.
She adds that she actually first met him when he offered to carry her books home from Detroit's Wayne State University for her.
'A teacher at heart'
"He asked and I agreed, because I thought he was a real gentleman," LaGreen confides with a grin. "But I did feel sorry for him, because it was four or five miles."
So remarkable Rutherford woman June LaGreen has a husband who won her heart and hand by storybook "carrying her books home from school." But she describes her scholarship as a two-way street, too.
"I consider myself a teacher of the world, a teacher at heart," LaGreen says - just like her alter ego, the 19th-century heroine who taught us all a lesson in taking a stand for freedom, courage, and human dignity.
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.