Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) was an escaped slave who became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman also served as a spy for the US army during the civil war and was an active participant in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
Tubman was born Araminta Ross, to slave parents who lived on plantations in Maryland. Little is known about her family background and ancestry, but her maternal grandmother came to the US on a slave ship from Africa (possibly from modern-day Ghana).
Her parents Rit and Ben Ross had nine children together, but three of Harriet’s sisters were sold at an early age by their owners and she never saw them again.
Even as a young child Harriet was responsible for looking after her younger siblings because her mother was too busy working as a cook. Harriet was also hired as a nursemaid to a “Miss Susan”. She was frequently whipped by her overseers – leading to scars which would last all her life. For periods of time, she was also sent out to work for a planter – checking muskrat traps – and later farming tasks, such as ploughing and moving logs.
On one occasion, Tubman was hit in the head by a stone thrown by a slave owner. The slave owner was aiming at another slave, but the stone hit Tubman in the back of her head – cracking her skull and leading to lifelong headaches, epileptic seizures and dreams or visions. Tubman later attributed her bushy unkempt hair for reducing the impact of the stone and saving her life.
Around 1844, Harriet married John Tubman. Around this time, she adopted her mother’s maiden name, Harriet, in place of her childhood name Araminta.
In 1849, Tubman’s slave owner, Edward Brodress, died. This raised the likelihood Tubman would be sold, and the family split up. With her two brothers, Ben and Henry, she decided to escape from the large plantation in Caroline County where they lived and worked. The escape was successful, but after a few weeks, her brothers had misgivings because they wanted to return to their children; Tubman was forced to return with them.
However, soon after, Tubman escaped for the second time. With the help of the Underground Railroad, she took a 90-mile route northeast along the Choptank River towards Pennsylvania. The journey on foot could have taken a couple of weeks, with great care being needed to avoid slave catchers, who could gain a bounty for catching any escaped slaves. After reaching Pennsylvania, she expressed her tremendous joy.
In Philadelphia, Tubman took on odd jobs to earn some money, but she wanted to return to Maryland to rescue the rest of her family. A significant element of Tubman’s life was her strong religious faith. From her childhood, she had learnt aural biblical stories, and although she couldn’t read, she felt a strong faith in the presence and guidance of God. She related receiving intense visions and clear messages coming from God, and on the dangerous missions, she trusted in the direction and protection of God to succeed in her mission.
In 1858, she met the radical abolitionist John Brown, who advocated violence to promote the ending of slavery. Although Tubman never promoted violence herself, she was sympathetic to the aims of John Brown and assisted him in finding willing volunteers. Brown’s raid on Harper Ferry, Virginia failed and he was executed, but Tubman praised his courage in death for trying to fight the institution of slavery.
At the outbreak of the civil war, Tubman saw a Union victory as a way to advance the cause of abolition. She served as a nurse in Port Royal, treating soldiers suffering dysentery and small pox.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Tubman became more involved in the efforts of the northern forces. She offered her services as a guide for scouting trips in South Carolina – using her skills to travel undetected. She also became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War, when she guided three steamboats to an assault on plantations on the Combahee River. The raid was a great success with around 750 slaves escaping onto steamboats; later, encouraged by Tubman, many of the liberated men went on to join the Union army – forming the first all-black corps. For her courageous efforts, she received favourable press coverage, though as a black woman she received no regular pay or pension (until 1899). During the war, she had to supplement her income by selling pies and root beer.
After the civil war, Tubman returned to Auburn where she continued to look after her family and other ex-slaves. She also remarried (Nelson Davis, 20 years her junior). They adopted a child Gerti.
Denied a pension, her financial situation was poor, but friends in the abolitionist movement helped raise funds. An authorised biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman was written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Over the next few years, Tubman often gave speeches on both slavery and women’s rights. She was an excellent storyteller who could capture the imagination of the audience.
Tubman also began supporting the women’s suffrage movement, supporting the work of Susan B. Anthony and others. Tubman spoke of her experiences and suffering in the war and railroad movement as proof that women were the equal of men. This brought her wider national recognition.
She donated her property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn to be converted into a home for aged and coloured people. After becoming increasingly frail, in 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by friends and family.
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