I knew hardly anything Harriet Tubman before the current announcement that her face will appear on the $20 bill. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve read books that help me appreciate her for what she was.
What’s remarkable about Harriet Tubman is how she risked her life, not once but many times, in order to achieve her own freedom and the freedom of others—as a gun-toting conductor for the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and spy for the Union Army.
She did all of this at her own initiative and much at her own expense. She financed her first slave rescue expeditions with money she earned as a cook and cleaner, and her work for the Union Army by making and selling pies and root beer. A poor illiterate black woman who suffered blackouts probably due to a childhood head injury, she earned the respect of intellectuals and generals.
She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime from 1820 to 1825 under the name of Amarinta Ross. At the age of five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to keep watch on a baby; whenever the baby woke up and cried, she was whipped. Once she was whipped five times before breakfast.
Later jobs included muskrat trapping, field and forest work, driving oxen, plowing and hauling logs.
Once an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight at another slave and hit her instead. She said the blow “broke my skull.” She suffered dizziness, pain and blackouts throughout the rest of her life. A devout Christian, she also experienced strange visions, vivid dreams and premonitions that she thought were the voice of God.
In 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia, and adopted the name of Harriet Tubman. Many escaped slaves changed their names in order to make recapture difficult. She was married to John Tubman, a free black man about 10 years older than her, but he refused to go with her.
Her position was as precarious as that of an illegal immigrant today. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as well as previous law, she could have been arrested and returned to slavery at any time.
Rather than playing it safe, she returned to Maryland to rescue members of her family, not just once, but at least 13 times. Slowly, one group at a time, with the help of the Underground Railroad, she brought an estimated 60 or 70 slaves to freedom, and helped possibly 60 or 70 more by showing them the route.
Among them were brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and her aged parents who by that time were free, but were under suspicion of aiding the others to flee. She sought out her husband, but he had meanwhile found a new partner.
She may have been the only fugitive slave who regularly ventured back into slave territory to bring other enslaved people out. This is especially remarkable because she went back to a place where she was known by sight to white people in the community.
Tubman traveled at night, usually in the winter, when few people were out and about. She disguised herself, sometimes as a man, sometimes as an old woman and sometimes as a prosperous free black woman dressed in fine silks.
She communicated by singing Gospel songs such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land” with her own verses or with special emphasis on certain verses, such that the slaves would understand her meaning, but the slave-owners would not
She carried a gun on her expeditions. Although she never had to shoot it out with slave catchers, there were times when she threatened to shoot members of her party who wanted to turn back.
Tubman claimed to be one of the few conductors on the Underground Railroad who never went off the track and never lost a passenger. Nobody counted how many people she rescued because, for security reasons, no records were kept. Her biographer, Kate Larson, believes that she personally guided at least 60 to 70 people to freedom, and also gave directions that enabled 60 or 70 others to find their own way.
She led the fugitives to a settlement in St. Catherines, Ontario, to gain the protection of Canadian law. She was regarded as the head of the family, even by her parents, whom she eventually brought out. All this time she supported herself by working as a domestic, cook and laundress.
She made friends with Frederick Douglass and other anti-slavery leaders. but, for security reasons, her name was no publicized outside abolitionist circles.
She also met and became friends with John Brown, who nicknamed her “General Tubman” and remarked that she had more of the qualities of a true man than anyone he ever met. She helped recruit fighters for Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which was intended to spark a general slave uprising.
Her biographers disagree on her whereabouts at the time of Brown’s failed attempt. Most believe she intended to take part but didn’t get the word. But it is possible that she, like Frederick Douglass, believed the attempt was doomed.
In 1862, after the Civil War broke out, she joined abolitionists and other volunteers supporting Union troops occupying Port Royal on the coast of South Carolina.
She provided assistance for black slaves who’d taken refuge behind Union lines and nursing for Union troops suffering from dysentery and smallpox, using her own herbal remedies.
She wasn’t paid for this work. She was allowed to draw rations, but ceased doing this because the other black people accused her of having special privileges. Instead she supported herself by making and selling pies and root beer.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized her to work as a spy and scout behind enemy lines. Along with others, she mapped the unfamiliar terrain and made contact with sympathetic slaves.
An old friend, Colonel James Montgomery, formerly one of John Brown’s men, appeared at the head of a regiment of black troops. In 1893, she guided him on a waterborne raid up the Combahee River.
The Union troops burned plantations and seized tons of food and supplies. Slaves rushed and attempted to board the boats, threatening to overwhelm them. Tubman calmed the situation by starting to sing. The slaves joined in and Montgomery boarded and liberated more than 750 of them.
She was later present when Colonel Robert Gould Shaw let a regiment of black troops in a doomed assault on Fort Wager, which was depicted in the movie, Glory.
After the war, she journeyed home to Auburn, New York. On the way, she was thrown out of a first-class train compartment by a conductor because she was black. She resisted, and suffered a broken arm and broken ribs.
She had bought her house in Auburn in 1859 from William Henry Seward, an anti-slavery politician, former Governor of New York and Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet, who was a friend and admirer throughout the rest of his life.
Learning of the murder of John Tubman by a white man in 1867, she married a Union veteran named Nelson Davis, who was 20 years younger than her. She petitioned for decades for back pay as an army nurse, and finally got it, along with a widow’s pension for Davis when he died of TB.
During the second half of her life, she was active in the woman’s suffrage movement and in raising money to care for aged and infirm members of the black community in Auburn, despite her own poverty. She spent her last years in a home for elderly African-Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier.
The remarkable thing about Harriet Tubman was not that her decisions shaped historical events. The remarkable thing about Harriet Tubman is that she set an example of what it is to love freedom.
One-time slave Harriet Tubman to be new face of US $20 bill by Agence France-Presse via GlobalPost.
Harriet Tubman: the woman, the myth, the legend muddied by $20 bill plaudits by Jamiles Lartey for The Guardian.
The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad by Kathryn Schultz for The New Yorker. [added 8/20/2016] Hat tip to my expatriate friend Jack.
Harriet Tubman on Wikipedia.
Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories by Jean Humez (2003)
Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson (2004).
Harriet Tubman: the Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton (2004)
Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life by Beverly Lowry (2007).
Originally published on June 1, 2016, and corrected on June 4, 2016. The original version of this post had a misspelled birth name for Harriet Tubman and an incorrect figure for the age difference between her and her second husband.