Harriet Tubman is possibly, for me, one of the most inspiring African American women in history. In fact, she is perhaps the most amazing person, to my mind. Her efforts to help get slaves out of the southern states, at great risk of her own, amazes me. She truly is an American hero.
My First introduction to Harriet Tubman came from my maternal Grandmother
When I was a little girl, growing up in the deep southern state of Georgia, it was difficult to not hear stories about the Civil War. Many of these stories were those of the “War of Southern Aggression” and debates on what “The War” was really about. These are things that today I find difficult to stomach, but I understand both sides as best as someone who was born 100+ years later could.
What I really remember is the wonderful low rumbling songs of the south, the spirituals that I grew up having sung to me as lullabies or sitting at my father’s feet as he played them on the guitar. But the first time I heard about Harriet Tubman was when I had taken home her biography from a series of biography books that I read at school. My Gran was living with us at the time and often I would sit next to her and read while she crocheted.
When she saw my book, she smiled. “That’s the lady who used quilts for the underground railroad.” We are a family of quilters, so I found this idea absolutely fascinating.
For the next half hour or so, I listened to her tell me about what she knew of the Underground Railroad and the belief that they used Quilts to pass messages on. As it turns out, that part of the story might only be myth or folklore. It has been very difficult for scholars to prove. As a Folklorist, however, I know that sometimes the idea of ‘the thing’ is as important as the thing itself. In this instance, my Gran tied our own family tradition of quilting to the story of an amazing woman who I have been fascinated with and inspired by since I was a young girl.
But, what is the true story of Harriet Tubman?
Born a slave, Harriet Tubman’s early life was hard.
Born a slave around between 1820 and 1822 on a plantation owned by Anthony Thompson, her parents Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross named her Araminta. They called her “Minty”. The plantation was located in Peter’s Neck, Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her mother “Rit” was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess, who eventually married Anthony Thompson. She met Benjamin Green when the household and slaves moved onto Thompson’s plantation upon his marriage to Brodess.
By Maryland law, any children born to female slaves were born slaves and remained property of the mother’s owner. The also meant that during Harriet’s young life she watched many of her eight siblings sold off to new owners. In fact, Harriet learned resistance from watching her mother hide her youngest brother. With the help of other slaves and the free black community near by, Rit was able to hide her little brother and keep him from being sold away.
Freedom did not come easily for Harriet Tubman.
When Harriet’s father was 45, Anthony Thompson died and his will stipulated that Benjamin be freed. This was supposed to happen with Harriet, her mother, and remaining family, but Marry Brodess’s son Edward refused to fulfill that portion of his mother’s will upon her death.
Harriet’s childhood was a difficult one. As a young five year old, she was rented out to help care for an infant and each time the baby cried, she was whipped. By seven, she was setting muskrat traps and eventually worked as a field hand. At 12, she stepped between an overseer and a fugitive slave as the overseer threw a weight at the later. The weight struck her instead, knocking her unconscious. She never received treatment, and this injury caused trouble for her much of her life.
“The weight broke my skull … They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all, and they laid me on the seat of the loom, and I stayed there all day and the next.”
After her recovery she was hired out to work in the fields. It was during that time, before her marriage, that she was able to earn extra income that potentially would help her escape someday.
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
1844 married John Tubman and took his name; it was about this time she changed her name to Harriett. One thought is that she did so to honor her mother. Because Harriet was a slave and John Tubman, a free man, their marriage was ceremonial. She remained the property of her owner. There is not much information about their marriage available.
When Edward Brodess died in March of 1949, Harriet knew she was about to be sold. Her two brothers were also to be sold. This convinced her to escape with her brothers, but John, her husband, was not interested in fleeing north. When she fled, her brothers turned back, but she kept going, using the Underground Railroad routes to escape.
Once free herself, she returned to help family members and other slaves escape as well as telling others how to escape. She rescued her 70 year old parents and other family members; she went back for her husband but he refused; he had remarried to a freed slave. Over 10 years she led a total of 19 groups of slaves to freedom, rescuing at least 70 people and attributed with as many as 300.
In order to keep herself and her people safe she carried a gun. She would also use it sometimes to forcibly encourage slaves to keep moving. he drugged infants and small children to keep them quiet. She traveled by night; organizing the escapes for Saturday night so that the notice about their escape couldn’t be printed in the newspapers until Monday. Over time, she created her own Underground Railroad network. It even extended into Canada after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed.
The Civil War and the attack on Harper’s Ferry.
In 1859, having been an associate and supporter of John Brown, an abolitionist and advocate of an armed insurrection to overthrow slavery, she helped recruit people for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. He dubbed her “General Tubman”. Fortunately, most likely due to health issues, she was not present for the actual attack.
Throughout the Civil War, Harriet Tubman aided the North in the civil war as much as possible. She saw it as a sure way to liberate slaves. She aided the Union effort as a nurse, aiding fugitive slaves and soldiers. President Lincoln, she believed, and the north couldn’t win the war unless he resolved to abolish slavery.
“God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing.”
Harriet Tubman was the first woman to guided troops in war. She joined James Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina Infantry in the Combahee River Raid. They freed more than 700 slaves. She then helped freed slaves to form black regiments in the Union Army.
After the war and in her later life Harriet Tubman continued to fight for her people.
Before the Civil War, in 1859, Harriet purchased some land from the abolitionist Senator William H. Seward in New York. Once the war was over, she settled there with her family. Ten years later in 1869, Harriet married Civil War Vet Nelson Davis. They later adopted a daughter in 1874 named Gertie.
She continued to help others in need to the very end of her life. The Suffragist movement was rising and she worked with Susan B. Anthony. She found Anthony, Mott and the other Suffragists extremely worthy, fighting with a true devotion to equity and justice even to the expense of themselves.
In 1896, she bought 25 acres of property connected to her land. With the help of The AME Zion Church, funds were raised to pay the $1,450 cost of the land. Supported by a local bank providing a mortgage Tubman was able to complete the transaction. In 1903 she was unable to make the tax payments on the land, so she donated it to the church with the stipulation that they would continue to operate the home. Five years passed before things to be fully equipped and staffed. The Home opened officially in 1908.
Deteriorating health caused her to move in to the home for the aged, in 1911 and on the 10th of March 1913 Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia.
Explore some of our other famous African American Women
- Amazing African American Women, 2020 Special Feature
- Amazing Firsts by African American Women, 2019 Special Feature