Harriet TubmanJun 11th, 2010 | By BHS | Category: Activism, Social Sciences
1821? – 1913 Known as the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman was born a slave of purely African ancestry. She escaped to freedom and risked her life to save over 300 slaves, including her own parents, in 19 separate “freedom trips” on the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army as a cook, a nurse, and often as a spy. Later, she worked alongside the leading members of the suffragist movement to champion women’s voting rights, founded a home for the elderly and the indigent, and cared for Black orphans.
Life in Slavery
Born sometime between 1819 and 1821 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman was the daughter of enslaved parents. She was named Araminta by her owners, but later in life changed her name to Harriet, after her mother.
She worked as a house servant from the age of six and was subjected to painful whippings by her masters even as a young child. Harriet soon learned to wear all of the clothes that she owned to soften the pain of the whip. She was often “invited” to join in prayer with the master’s family. Later she would recount that during these prayer sessions, she would pray silently for God to give her the fortitude to survive her life of slavery and the strength to change her station in life.
After seven years as a house servant, Harriet was moved to the fields. It was there, in her early teens, that she suffered a blow to the head in an attempt to shield another slave from a large rock hurled by an angry overseer. The effects of this blow plagued her for life and ever after she suffered from a disorder similar to narcolepsy.
Escape to Freedom
At the age of twenty-five Harriet married a free Black man named John Tubman. In 1849, fearing her sale to another plantation, Harriet ran away leaving her husband behind. A White neighbor had supplied her with a piece of paper bearing the names of two people who would help her on the journey. Armed only with that piece of paper, Harriet set out on foot after dark. Walking only at night, she followed the North Star, eventually making her way to the Free State of Pennsylvania. There she settled in Philadelphia and found work as a dishwasher.
In 1850, after saving enough money for her first “freedom trip,” Harriet returned to Maryland and she escorted her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. On her second “freedom trip,” she saved her brother and two other slaves. Upon learning that her husband had remarried, she said that just as she had dropped out of his life, so he had dropped out of her heart. She vowed to spend her life rescuing others, allaying fear with her motto: “I cannot die but once.”
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
All in all, Harriet Tubman made nineteen “freedom trips” rescuing nearly 300 enslaved men, women and children. She remained ever faithful to the groups she led. On more than one occasion, she threatened to shoot any man or woman who grew too tired in “middle passage” or who considered going back, for one deserter would give them all away. “A live runaway could do harm by going back,” she told them, “but a dead one could tell no secrets.” Never did she actually have to harm a fugitive. The “freedom trips” were always in winter when the nights were long and dark. She carried the drug laudanum with her, and used it to sedate infants on the journey to prevent any outcries which might give them away. Led by Tubman, fugitive slaves would stay in the homes of supporters that constituted the Underground Railroad. Often these were the homes of Quakers who would hang brightly colored quilts in their lawns to let the runaways know that it was a safe house. After word of her pilgrimages spread, law enforcement officials offered a bounty of $40,000 for her capture. In 1857, Tubman rescued her own parents. They were too feeble to walk to freedom, so she courted danger by hiring a wagon to carry them. Even though Tubman made the last “freedom trip” in 1860, her life of service continued.
Soldier, Suffragist, Champion of the Elderly
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Harriet served with the Union Army working as a soldier, nurse, cook, and spy. In 1863, she led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she married a Black veteran named Nelson Davis. In 1908, Harriet helped to build a home for the indigent and elderly in her adopted home, Auburn, New York. There she worked and was cared for until her death in 1913. Harriet Tubman was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, with full military honors.