"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."
- Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become one of the leading abolitionists of all-time. She led hundreds to freedom in the North as the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad; an elaborate secret network of safe houses organized to help slaves find freedom. Not only this, Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War; guiding the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slames in South Carolina. She also worked as a Union Army cook and nurse. Her life was a well-spent, well-used life which made a huge impact on so many hundreds of lives. Was she born with all the opportunities we have today? Definitely not. Let's take a look at her beginnings.
Harriet Tubman's Early Life
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery, on a plantation in Viginia, somewhere between 1820 and 1825. Tubman's first home was on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Harriet's mother's name was Harriet "Rit" Green, and her father was Benjamin Ross. Tubman's name at birth was Araminta "Minty" Ross.
When Harriet was five, a nearby family paid her owner to let her come work for them. She had to do domestic work- cleaning, bringing in the firewood, and even taking care of the master and mistress's infant. Harriet was still so small at the time, she had to sit on the floor to make sure that the baby would not slip out of her hands. After working all day, young Harriet had to stay up most of the night, too. If the baby cried and woke up her master and mistress, Harriet was punished. She once said that she was whipped five times before breakfast while working at that house.
As Harriet grew older, Harriet was hired out as a field worker; this position brought on even more challenges and hardships for the young girl.
When Harriet was 12, a slave trader from Georgia attempted to purchase Harriet's brother Moses. For many slaves, "Georgia" could mean anywhere in the Deep South. Because of the hard work on the cotton fields, and the greater distance to possible freedom in the North, no slave wanted to be sold down to Georgia. This event was considerably traumatic for young Harriet.
Then, at the age of twelve, Harriet suffered severe injuries that would affect her for the rest of her life.
Harriet was on her way to a local store to purchase kitchen supplies for the plantation cook, when she found out that her overseer was going to punish one of the young men for leaving the fields. Because the young field-hand was going to the store as well, she tried to run ahead and warn him. Harriet stood in the doorway of the store while the frightened young man fled. The slave owner meant to punish him and threw a heavy lead weight in his direction. The weight struck Harriet in the head instead. Harriet spent the next two days unable to move. Weeks and months went by, with Harriet slipping into a deep sleep, then walking, and then falling into deep sleep again. Finally, Harriet seemed to recover, although, for the rest of her life, she would occasionally slip into what she called "spells"- episodes where she blacked out. In later years, she was even known to have a blackout in mid-sentence, wake up later, and continue what she was saying as though nothing had happened. Today, this condition is known as Narcolepsy.
Truly, Harriet Tubman's childhood was far from easy or nurturing. Yet still, through all those hardships, she maintained a strong willpower and fight to survive and help others. Even after Harriet escaped slavery and found freedom in the North, she made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery. In December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold, along with her two young children. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife at an auction in Baltimore. Harriet then helped the entire family make the journey to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips by Tubman, who earned the nickname “Moses” for her leadership. Over time, she was able to guide her parents, several siblings and about 60 others to freedom.
"I would fight for my liberty so long as my strength lasted, and if the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me."
- Harriet Tubman
The dynamics of escaping slavery changed in 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. This law stated that escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery, leading to the abduction of former slaves and free blacks living in Free States. Law enforcement officials in the North were compelled to aid in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal principles. In response to the law, Tubman re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, which prohibited slavery categorically.
In December 1851, Tubman guided a group of 11 fugitives northward. There is evidence to suggest that the party stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.
Harriet Tubman's Adult Life and Legacy
Despite Harriet’s fame and reputation, she was never wealthy or even financially secure. Thankfully, Tubman’s friends and supporters were able to raise some funds to support her. One admirer, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote a biography entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
, with the proceeds going to Tubman and her family. Harriet continued to give freely in spite of her economic woes. In 1903, she donated a parcel of her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged opened on this site in 1908.
As Tubman aged, the head injuries sustained early in her life became more painful and disruptive. She underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to alleviate the pains and "buzzing" she experienced regularly. Tubman was eventually admitted into the rest home named in her honor. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913.
Harriet Tubman, widely known and well-respected while she was alive, became an American icon in the years after she died. A survey at the end of the 20th century named her as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War, third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. Even today, Tubman continues to inspire generations of Americans struggling for civil rights with her bravery and bold action.
When she died, Tubman was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The city commemorated her life with a plaque on the courthouse. Tubman was celebrated in many other ways throughout the nation in the 20th century. Dozens of schools were named in her honor, and both the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge serve as monuments to her life.
What We Can Learn from Harriet Tubman
There are so many lessons we can apply to our lives from Harriet Tubman's life. We can learn about bravery; standing up for others against seemingly insurmountable odds. We can learn about compassion; helping others no matter the cost and giving freely of our money even if we aren't wealthy, as Tubman did in her later years. We can learn about endurance, willpower, integrity, and hard work. She is truly a hero that we should commemorate this month. Tell your kids about Harriet Tubman! Find ways to emulate the qualities she had in abundance. A life has so much potential for good, let's not waste the time we have. Let's take a lesson from Harriet Tubman and make a difference in the world for good.
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Black History Month is here and we want to commemorate it with a tribute to one of Black history's greatest trailblazers: Harriet Tubman.