She is remembered as “The Moses of Her People.” During her long life, she was a cruelly treated slave, a courageous conductor on the Underground Railroad, a leading abolitionist, a daring Union spy and scout, a champion for women’s rights, a compassionate nurse, a selfless humanitarian, and a devout Christian. Today, she is an American icon; her leadership and service to our country have earned her the recognition and honor of becoming the new face on the twenty-dollar bill.
Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Harriet Ross and called “Minty,” was born and raised in slavery, sometime between 1808 and 1832. Because of the circumstance of being a slave, it is impossible to arrive at the exact date of her birth. Her death certificate states that she was born in 1815, while her gravestone gives the date of her birth as 1820. Tubman, herself, at various times stated that she was born in 1820, 1822, and 1825; pointing to the fact that like many slaves, she simply did not know when she was born.
Harriet literally bore the scars of her deplorably harsh childhood till the end of her days. While still a young child, perhaps no more than five years old, she was hired out to care for a baby while it slept. If the baby awoke, Harriet was punished with a whipping. On one particular day, she was beaten five times before breakfast!
As a young adolescent, the cruel treatment of slaves resulted in her suffering a head injury that would leave her with permanent excruciating pain, dizziness, seizures, and narcolepsy. At a dry goods store where she had been sent for supplies, the young Harriet found herself in the middle of a confrontation between a slave who had left the fields without permission and his irate owner. After she had refused to help capture the fleeing slave, the furious owner threw a two-pound weight at him, but struck her in the head instead. For two days, she lay bleeding and unconscious at her owner’s house. No medical attention was given her. When she awoke, she was sent out to work in the fields, blood and sweat running down her face and into her eyes to the point that she could not even see.
Sometime around 1844, the slave born Araminta Ross became Harriet Tubman after marrying a free black man named John Tubman. By this time, about half of the black population in Eastern Maryland were freemen. Not much is really known about their lives together, although there is some unproven speculation that she may have had children. What is known is that in 1849, with the imminent and real possibility of being sold by her owner, Harriet decided to escape slavery no matter what the cost. As she later said, “There was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other.”
On September 17, 1849, along with her brothers Ben and Henry, Harriet fled for Philadelphia. But her brothers had second thoughts, and Harriet returned with them. She had no intention of remaining, however. In 1851, using the network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman escaped the cruelty of slavery to find freedom in Philadelphia. She later recalled, “When I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
The road to freedom was a perilous one. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, runaway slaves were hunted down, and if caught, returned to face whippings, and possibly maiming and other horrific acts. Once reaching free soil, who would ever risk exposing themselves to such brutal treatment and the return to the chains of slavery? Yet, that is exactly what the heroic Harriet Tubman did – not just once to lead her own family members to safety, but accounts range from thirteen to nineteen times to lead as many slaves as she could along the path to freedom.
She helped her parents, many of her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and dozens of other unrelated slaves to escape; and conducted them along the Underground Railroad. When Harriet tried to persuade her husband, John Tubman, to join her in the North, she discovered that he had taken a new wife, whom he chose to stay with in Maryland.
By even the most conservative estimates, between 1849 and 1860, Harriet Tubman made thirteen separate trips back into the South to lead a total of seventy slaves to freedom. In all of those risky expeditions, the determined, sharp-witted Tubman eluded the capture of herself and her companions. Years later, she told an audience: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Tubman used all possible means to evade apprehension. That included carrying a revolver, which she was prepared to use on anyone that threatened the safety of her group of escapees. Anyone meant anyone: even on occasion forcing at gunpoint an escaped slave who tried to turn back to continue onward. In general, though, she employed her quick thinking and many artifices to dodge would-be captors. One such tactic was singing “spirituals” (Christian songs created by slaves), like “Go Down Moses,” as coded messages to communicate with those to be rescued. It was a fitting song to use, not only because of the lyric, “… let my people go”; but also for its association with Harriet Tubman, who like the Biblical Moses, led her people to freedom. It was the leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who entitled Tubman with the enduring appellation.
In fact, Harriet was a devout Christian. Leading abolitionist Thomas Garrett, who provided assistance to Tubman along the Underground Railroad, stated, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” She trusted God to protect and guide her by Divine revelation in her journeys. The inscription on her gravestone at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, “Servant of God, Well Done,” reflects the motivating force behind all of her selfless endeavors throughout her long life.
Tubman was well acquainted with many of the leading abolitionists of the time and worked closely with some of them, including: William Henry Seward, Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Garrett, and the controversial John Brown. Douglas wrote Tubman:
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
The most famous and controversial abolitionist, John Brown, called Tubman, “one of the bravest persons on this continent.”
It was the less radical (yet still an outspoken abolitionist) U.S. Senator William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State, who in early 1859 provided the property for Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn, NY. The land was sold for the price of $1,200.00 on the most generous terms. Peter Wisbey, Seward House Executive Director, wrote:
Finally, the Seward’s support and patronage of Harriet Tubman is well known and documented. In 1859, William Henry and Frances conveyed seven acres of land to Tubman as a home. The property, the nucleus of the present day Harriet Tubman Home museum, was not paid off until after William Seward’s death in 1872, emphasizing what Sarah Bradford recorded as the Sewards’ “very favorable terms” to Tubman. The Seward account books do record occasional payments on the debt and additional loans to Tubman over the next several decades.
The outbreak of the Civil War introduced new roles for Harriet Tubman in her continuing mission to free her people from the chains of slavery. She served as a nurse treating wounded soldiers and those suffering from dysentery and smallpox, while at the same time supporting herself through the sale of homemade pies and root beer. Her knowledge of the southern region gained through her many expeditions proved extremely valuable to the war effort, and Tubman became a trusted scout for the Union Army. Her role became expanded on the morning of June 2, 1863, when Tubman led troops under the command of Colonel James Montgomery on an armed assault along the Combahee River, guiding three steamboats through mine infested waters, and freeing over 750 slaves. Newspapers at the time heralded Tubman’s “… patriotism, sagacity, energy, ability.” Harriet continued to volunteer as a nurse, cook, scout and spy for the Union until some months after the war’s end, finally returning to her new home in Auburn, New York.
After the end of the Civil War, Harriet took up permanent residence herself on the property. Harriet had brought her parents to live in the Auburn home after rescuing them, and she continued to care for them upon her return. To help “make ends meet” after the war, Tubman took in boarders at her home. Among them was a Civil War veteran working as a bricklayer, Nelson Davis. Although Nelson was twenty-two years younger than Harriet, they married on March 18, 1869, and adopted a baby girl, Gertie, in 1874.
Harriet Tubman’s Christian service and humanitarian efforts did not end with the cessation of the institution of slavery, however. Throughout the following years of her long life, Harriet continued to tirelessly labor and selflessly give beyond her means to ease the suffering of others. Tubman also championed a new cause after the war. She joined the efforts of women’s suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland, traveling to Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. to speak out for women’s voting rights. In 1903, her care for the sick and elderly led her to donate a parcel of her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which became The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Harriet spent her own final days in that very home, which she had bequeathed for the “aged and indigent colored people,” dying of pneumonia in 1913. That building, along with Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn, NY is open to the public as a museum and education center in her honor.
Harriet Tubman has received innumerable honors since her passing. Dozens of schools across the country have been named after her. Numerous biographies have been written about her. Both the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and her residence in Auburn, New York have been designated National Historical Landmarks. And exhibits in historical museums across the country represent her, including the Smithsonian. She was buried with semi-military honors at the historic Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY. A year later, Booker T. Washington delivered the keynote speech there at a dedication ceremony commemorated with a plaque which now adorns the front of the Cayuga County Courthouse. In 1937, the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs contributed Harriet Tubman’s present gravestone. Tubman’s gravesite was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. In 1944, after being petitioned by the National Council of Negro Women, the U.S. Maritime Commission launched the SS Harriet Tubman, a Liberty ship named in her honor. She became the first African-American woman to be honored on a US Postage stamp in 1978.. By joint resolution of the U.S. Congress, March 10, 1990 was declared Harriet Tubman Day. Recently, not one, but two National Parks have been designated in her honor: The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Cayuga County, New York, and The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland. And after a long selection process, on April 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill.
Poetically, the face of a woman born into the anonymity of slavery will become, perhaps, the most recognizable face of freedom.