By Paula B. Nelson
Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University
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Harriet Tubman was a second-generation slave who dedicated her life to fulfilling her cry to the slaveholders, "Let my people go!" She escaped from slavery, herself, yet returned to the South nineteen times to free over three hundred slaves. She had an unflappable faith in God and believed slavery to be an evil created by man. Called "the Moses of her people," Tubman never lost a slave or failed on her missions. She was a scout and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and her information was responsible for the destruction of enormous amounts of Confederate resources. After the war, Tubman continued to battle for social reforms and justice for her people.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1820. She was the eleventh child of her parents, Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross. The entire family lived as slaves on the plantation of Edward Brodas, in Dorchester County, Maryland. Harriet's parents were full-blooded Africans believed to be Ashanti, a West African warrior people.
The family suffered under slavery. Two sisters were sold young and Harriet herself was rented out to neighboring families (a common practice) to wind yarn, check muskrat traps, and do housekeeping. After contracting measles and bronchitis, Harriet returned to the plantation to be nursed back to health by her mother "Old Rit." At age seven, Harriet was sent away to care for a baby. One morning, while her mistress' back was turned, Harriet reached for a lump of sugar from the bowl on the table and was seen. She later described what happened next: "'De nex' minute she had de raw hide down: I give one jump out of de do', an' I saw dey came after me, but I jes' flew and dey didn't catch me. I run, an' I run, an' I run'" (Brenau University 2002)1. After days of hiding, lack of food forced Harriet to return and she was beaten.
At age twelve, Harriet returned to the plantation to work as a field slave where she developed her physical strength and endurance. At thirteen Harriet witnessed an unsuccessful escape attempt. She was instructed to tie up the slave, who later freed himself and successfully escaped. The overseer held Harriet responsible and hit her in the head with a two-pound weight. This near fatal injury left Harriet with a permanent indentation in her forehead. Harriet suffered from narcoleptic seizures and severe headaches throughout her life as a result of this beating (Bradford 1866).
In 1844, Harriet was married to John Tubman although their marriage never produced children. In 1849, after the death of her owner, Harriet learned she was going to be forcibly separated from her family. She made a plan to escape. Her husband refused to go with her and threatened to report her to the new master. Harriet and her brothers fled the plantation. But, after a short distance, her brothers decided to return, leaving Harriet to make her way alone. She traveled at night and hid by day, her only guide the North Star. Years later Harriet recalled, "I looked at my hands to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything… And I felt like I was in heaven" (Bradford 1866, 30)2. Her joy was short lived as she fully realized she was alone and thought of her family in slavery. Unless she tried to liberate them, she would never see them again or even know their fate (Bradford 1886).
Harriet settled in Philadelphia and worked as a cook, laundress and maid to support herself and save money for her family. She met William Still, an abolitionist, the son of an escaped slave, and a leader in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee (also called the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society). In this city, Harriet learned of the Underground Railroad with its secret network of black and white abolitionists who utilized an elaborate series of secret tunnels, houses and roads. In 1850, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act making it illegal to assist a runaway slave, Harriet joined the Underground Railroad. She began to lead her charges to Canada for safety.
Little documentation of Harriet's twenty excursions back to the South exists. This is because Harriet was illiterate and her trips were purposefully kept secret to increase their safety and success. Harriet believed God would aid her efforts, and she also carried a long rifle on her journeys. She did not hesitate to point it at those whose courage wavered. As William Still noted, Tubman believed that "A live runaway could do great harm by going back but a dead one could tell no secrets" (New York History Net 2002). Harriet's first trip back into the South was to rescue her sister and two nieces who were imprisoned in a slave pen waiting to be sold. The trip was successful.
Slaves and abolitionists began to call her "Moses" because she successfully led her people to freedom in the Promised Land. Harriet often relayed messages to slaves and fugitives encoded in hymns she would sing or bible quotes loudly delivered in her while praying. Slaveholders, feeling the effects of Moses' missions, offered a reward of $40,000 for her capture. In 1857, Harriet liberated her parents. After a winter in Canada, she settled them in Auburn, New York in a house she purchased from her friend and Senator William H. Seward (who later served as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State; Bradford 1886). Seward's sale to Tubman was illegal at the time.
During the Civil War, Harriet was recruited by and worked for the Union Army. In 1862, she traveled to South Carolina and worked as a nurse, cook, scout and spy. As a short black woman with missing teeth and no distinctive features, Harriet wore a bandana on her head and moved unnoticed through rebel territory. Working as a scout and spy for Col. James Montgomery of the South Carolina Volunteers, Harriet identified slaves to be freed by the Union Army. In 1865, Harriet moved to Virginia to care for wounded black soldiers as the matron of the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe. She was denied payment for her service during the Civil War and spent the next thirty years petitioning the government to receive a $20 a month pension, which was granted in 1897.
In the 1860s, Harriet began to appear at anti-slavery meetings and to speak on women's rights. After the war she settled with various family members in her house in Auburn, New York; John Tubman had remarried shortly after Harriet's escape and died in 1867. Harriet took in boarders to help support herself and her family. In 1869, Harriet married Nelson Davis, a former slave, who had served in the Union Army and whom she had met while guiding black soldiers in South Carolina.
Tubman spent her last years busy helping others and the cause of her people. She worked to raise money for freedman's schools and to improve the plight of destitute children. She cared for her aging parents. In 1896, she was a delegate to the National Association of Colored Women's first annual convention. In 1908, Harriet officially founded the Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. Eventually, her health failed and she lived in the Home until her death on March 10, 1913. Before her death, Harriet proudly recalled, "I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger"3 (New York History Net 2002). She was buried with full military honors.
- Harriet Tubman was a key figure in the slaves' fight for freedom. As a second-generation slave, the cruelty viewed and suffered by Harriet in her early years solidified her desire for the freedom of her people. She compared the institution of African-American slavery to the slavery suffered by Moses and his people in Egypt and devoted her life to delivering her people out of their bondage and into their Promised Land of freedom. Harriet successfully delivered over three hundred people to freedom. Additionally, she felt that achieving freedom and equality for African-Americans was closely linked to women's rights. Therefore, Harriet was involved in the early histories of the civil rights and women's suffrage movements in the United States.
Tubman became the most famous and successful "conductors" of the Underground Railroad, which provided assistance, shelter and food to runaway slaves during their flight north to freedom. She helped make the system work, providing the hope of freedom for southern slaves. Thousands of slaves gained their freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Harriet dedicated her entire life to social reforms directed toward improving the quality of life for African-Americans. She did whatever needed to be done: helped slaves to freedom; scouted and spied for the Union Army; raised funds for schools that served former slaves; found housing for the elderly; opened a home for the indigent; and was a spokesperson for African-Americans' and women's rights. Foremost, throughout her life, she risked her life countless times to assist others and further the cause of freedom. With her life's accomplishments, Harriet Tubman was a shining example of what a human being is capable of, despite slavery, racism and oppression.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Harriet Tubman spent her entire life working to correct the injustices done against her people. She worked to bring slaves to freedom and to advance the rights of all African-Americans. Through her travels Harriet developed a wide network of friends whom she enlisted for her numerous social causes. Harriet always asked for help when necessary, from people who had the resources she needed.
Some were well-known philanthropists (like William Seward and Gerritt Smith) and others were poor individuals, but most contributed to the full extent of their abilities. This was grass-roots philanthropy. Specifically, the Underground Railroad was the prominent philanthropic organization Tubman risked her life and well-being to assist. The Railroad existed through the efforts of volunteers and donations of money, food, clothing, shelter, and other resources from courageous people from the South to the North.
Through donations and the help of the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Harriet began the Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People in 1896. She managed this home until her death in 1913.
Key Related Ideas
- Abolitionist movement
- Civil War
- Underground Railroad
- Women's Rights movement
Tubman devoted her life to the emancipation and betterment of the African-American people. She worked with abolitionists (people devoted to the abandonment of slavery) through the Underground Railroad in her twenty trips South to lead slaves to freedom. One of the key causes of the American Civil War between the North and the South was the issue of slavery of blacks in the South. Harriet Tubman assisted the Union Army by spying for them, identifying slaves to be freed, and caring for sick soldiers. Through these years of tremendous risk taking and service to others, she was an example of a woman being capable of doing anything she wanted. Later in her life, she became formally involved in the Suffrage and Women's Rights movement.
Important People Related to the Topic
Captain John Brown: A prominent abolitionist; Tubman helped Brown plan the raid on a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry where he was attacked and killed.
Frederick Douglass: African-American abolitionist, newspaper publisher, writer, and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln.
Thomas Garrett: A Quaker abolitionist credited with freeing 3,000 slaves by providing his Maryland home as the last stop in the Underground Railroad before runaway slaves reached freedom in Pennsylvania.
William H. and Frances Seward: This New York State Senator and former Governor and his wife were abolitionists who provided a home for Tubman's parents and her runaway niece, Margaret; the Sewards later sold a home, inexpensively, to Tubman to be used as her base of operations (New York History Net 2002).
Gerritt Smith: A wealthy philanthropist and social reformer from New York State in the mid-nineteenth century; Smith was active in the abolitionist and temperance movements and was a close friend of Frederick Douglass.
Wendell Phillips: A lawyer who left his profession to dedicate himself to the emancipation of slaves; one of the greatest orators of the Abolitionist movement, connecting emancipation with freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
William Still: The son of slaves, Still was the first African-American man to become a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He helped to organize and run the Underground Railroad.
Sojourner Truth: Ex-slave, abolitionist and suffragist, Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) traveled the country speaking frankly against slavery and for women's rights. She published a book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which tells her story.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. The NAACP is an activist organization built by the philanthropic acts of people of many nationalities and races to seek voting, good housing, equal pay, education, and other rights for African Americans (http://www.naacp.org).
The Harriet Tubman Home was given to the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church by Tubman during her life. It is now owned and operated by the A.M.E. Zion Church. It is located at 180 South Street, Auburn, New York 13201 and is open for tours. Telephone: 315-252-2081. Email address: HTHome@localnet.com. For more information on the home, visit Web address http://www.nyhistory.com/harriettubman/index.htm.
Related Web Sites
Library of Congress' America's Story at http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi contains biographical information on many famous Americans as well as historical information on numerous subjects.
New York History Net provides information (and links to other Web sites) regarding New York State history and historical places of interest. The site includes an extensive description of Harriett Tubman's life (http://www.nyhistory.com/harriettubman/life.htm) and the history of her New York home.
Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War (http://www.civilwarhome.com/) contains biographies relating to the Civil War, as well as writings from the time and information on battles, armies, the confederacy, available medicine, and other Internet sites.
Spartacus Educational at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ provides is an extensive history Web site which offers links to articles on countless battles, people, places, historical periods, etc. (including Harriet Tubman).
Bibliography and Internet Sources
Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. New York: Corinth Books, 1961. (Reprint of second edition originally published in 1886.) ASIN: 9998952573.
Brenau University. Harriet Tubman. [updated 20 February 1998; cited 11 December 2002]. Available from http://faculty.brenau.edu/lewis/tubman.html.
Bright Moments: The Internet African American History Challenge. Harriet Tubman. [cited 26 September 2002]. Available from http://www.brightmoments.com/blackhistory/.
Commire, Ann, ed. Women in World History, Vol. 15. Waterford: Yorkin Publications, 1999.
Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of The Civil War, Vol. 4. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000. ISBN: 1576070662.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America Volume II M-Z. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0253327741.
Logan, Rayford R., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1983. ISBN: 0393015130.
New York History Net. The Life of Harriet Tubman. [cited 4 December 2002]. Available from http://www.nyhistory.com/harriettubman/life.htm.
Spartacus Educational. Thomas Garrett. [cited 4 December 2002]. Available from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASgarrett.htm.
1 These are Tubman’s actual words from an interview after the Civil War in which she gave a candid retelling of the first time she ran away. Her dialect reflects the lack of educational opportunities available to slaves at the time. The original source of this quote, cited by Brenau University 2002, is Sterling, Dorothy (Ed.). We are Your Sisters. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1994, 9-10.
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