Harriet Tubman: Symbol of American Courage

Harriet Tubman (far left) with fugitives on the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman is an American icon of courage and determination.

Born Araminta Ross around 1820 in Dorchester, Maryland, she grew up in slavery. She was often beaten, and at one point suffered a serious head injury when an angry slaveowner hit her with a heavy metal weight. She would be plagued by headaches and seizures for the rest of her life. In 1844, she married John Tubman and it is thought that around this time she changed her name to Harriet.

In 1849, Tubman feared that she would be sold down South, so she escaped to Philadelphia. She soon returned to Maryland to help her family escape. Over the course of ten years, she would make at least 19 trips into the South to “conduct” more than 300 slaves to the north of the United States through a network of safe houses, routes, and hiding places known as the Underground Railroad.

A map of some of the routes on the Underground Railroad.

The trips were wrought with peril, and Tubman had a few narrow escapes, her PBS biography notes that:
Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her "forays" successful, including using the master's horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn't be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, "You'll be free or die."

By 1856, Tubman's capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men.
Tubman became an important figure in the American abolitionist movement, working with Frederick Douglass and John Brown. She spoke to audiences all over the Northeast and helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harper's Ferry. During the American Civil War, she worked in the Union Army as a cook, nurse, armed scout, and a spy. She even led an expedition into war that freed more than 700 slaves.

Following the war, she was a part of the women’s suffrage movement, working closely with Susan B. Anthony and participating in speaking tours.

Tubman, often called the “Moses of her people”, died on March 10, 1913. She was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York.

Today, Tubman is honored across this nation. There are hundreds of public schools named after her, her image appeared on a U.S. postal stamp in 1995, and she is even considered a saint by the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.

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