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Messengers of the Word

 

HARRIET TUBMAN

(c.1820—1913)

 

“THE MOSES OF HER PEOPLE”

 

 HARRIET TUBMAN was a runaway slave from Maryland who became known as the “Moses of her people.” Over the course of 10 years, and at great personal risk, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses where runaway slaves could stay on their journey north to freedom. She later became a leader in the abolitionist movement, and during the Civil War was a spy for the federal forces in South Carolina, as well as a nurse.

 

Early years

 

Harriet was the fifth child of Harriet Green and Ben Ross, both slaves of pure African descent. Through her mother’s ancestry she can be traced back to the Asanti tribe of the Gold Coast in West Africa. At birth she was named Araminta, shortened to ‘Minty’ Ross.

 

During her first two or three years, Minty’s family had a comparatively stable existence living on the timber plantation owned by Ben’s master, Anthony Thompson, where Ben worked as timber inspector, supervisor, and manager.

 

The situation changed when Edward Brodess, Thompson’s stepson, claimed ownership of Harriet Green and her children and took them to his own farm about 10 miles away. The family were scattered as Brodess hired them out to other masters or sold them illegally to out-of-state buyers. Araminta, even at four years of age, was hired out for indoor work and was expected to stay awake all night watching the baby, being whipped if she fell asleep or the baby cried. As she grew older Araminta was hired out to work in the fields. She preferred outdoor work in spite of harsh conditions and ill treatment. Although a hard worker, she had a reputation for being insolent and unruly.

 

Scarred for life

 

At age 13, Araminta suffered a severe head injury from an iron weight thrown by an angry overseer at a slave trying to escape. The weight missed the slave but hit Araminta. The blow nearly crushed her skull and she was unconscious for days. When she recovered, the wound healed but left a deep scar, and for the rest of her life Araminta suffered serious after effects such as headaches, seizures, and sleeping spells.

 

In about 1844, Araminta married John Tubman, a free black man, took his surname and adopted her mother’s first name, Harriet, choosing to be known thereafter as Harriet Tubman.

 

Escape to freedom

 

Marriage to a free man did not automatically bring her freedom. Harriet continued as the slave of her current master, but was allowed to stay in her husband’s cabin at night. Always in the background was the fear of being sold and sent to work on cotton plantations in the deep

South, regarded by the majority of slaves as a death sentence.

 

When Edward Brodess died in March 1849 leaving unsettled debts, it seemed highly probable that many of his slaves would be sold to pay off his creditors. By the Autumn of that year Harriet decided to wait no longer and planned her escape. She confided only in her sister, fearing her husband would betray her plans.

 

The journey

 

Harriet knew she had to travel North. Travelling by night to avoid discovery, she walked through swamps and woodland, following the North Star. She was helped on her way by kindly folk black and white sympathetic to runaway slaves, who had set up an escape route known as the Underground Railroad.

 

At the end of her journey Harriet settled in Philadelphia, where she met William Still, Philadelphia Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. He introduced her to other members of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, and from these people she learned how the organization operated.

 

 THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

 

This is described in Encyclopaedia Britannica as “A system existing in the Northern states before the Civil War by which escaped slaves from the South were secretly helped by sympathetic Northerners, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts, to reach places of safety in the North or in Canada.

 

Though neither underground nor a railroad, it was thus named because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise, and because railway terms were used in reference to the conduct of the system. Various routes were lines, stopping places were called stations, those who aided along the way were conductors, and their charges were known as packages or freight.

 

The network of routes extended in all directions throughout 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada, which was beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters. Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the “railroad” were members of the free black community, Northern abolitionists, philanthropists, and such church leaders as the Quaker, Thomas Garrett.

 

Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gained firsthand knowledge of fugitive slaves through her contact with the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.

 

Estimates of the number of black people who reached freedom vary greatly, from 40,000 to 100,000. Although only a small minority of Northerners participated in the Underground Railroad, its existence did much to arouse Northern sympathy for the lot of the slave in the antebellum period, at the same time convincing many Southerners that the North as a whole would never peaceably allow the insti­tution of slavery to remain unchallenged.”

 

Let my people go!

 

In Philadelphia Harriet found domestic work and saved her wages so that she could help others of her family to escape. In 1850 she returned to Maryland and helped her niece Kessiah and her two children to escape. In succeeding years she returned to slave-holding states many times to help others escape leading them safely to the northern free states and to Canada.

 

It was very dangerous to be a runaway slave. There were rewards for their capture and whenever Harriet led a group of slaves to freedom, she placed herself in great peril. A bounty was offered for her capture as a fugitive slave herself, and for breaking the law in slave states by helping others escape.

 

If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, “You’ll be free or die a slave!” If anyone turned back, it would put her and the other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture, or even death. Harriet Tubman became so well known for leading slaves to freedom that she was dubbed ‘The Moses of Her People.” Many slaves dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” hoping a saviour would deliver them from slavery just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from bondage.

 THE CIVIL WAR

 

Harriet worked for the Union army as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. Her experience leading slaves along the Underground Railroad was especially helpful as she knew the land so well. She recruited a group of former slaves to hunt for rebel camps and report on the movements of Confederate troops. In 1863, she went with Colonel James Montgomery and about 150 black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina. Because she had inside information from her scouts, the Union gunboats were able to surprise the Confederate rebels.

 

At first when the Union Army came through and burned plantations, slaves hid in the woods. But when they realized that the gunboats could take them behind Union lines to freedom, they came running from all directions, bringing as many of their belongings as they could carry. Harriet later said, “I never saw such a sight.”

A brief word portrait by historian Benjamin Quarles (The Negro in the Civil War, 1989) brings to life Harriet Tubman in one of her many roles:

 

“As a scout, Mrs. Tubman’s deceptive appearance was a great asset. Who would have thought that this short, gnarled black woman with a bandanna wrapped around her head was engaged in such a bold venture as entering Rebel-held territory for the purposes of urging slaves to take to their heels, appraising military and naval defences, and taking in with a knowing eye the location and quantity of supplies, provisions and livestock? Rufus Saxton, Brigadier General of Volunteers, recorded that she ‘made many a raid inside the enemy’s lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal and fidelity.’”

 

 HUMANITARIAN WORK

 

With that same zeal and courage Harriet Tubman lived her entire life dedicated to freedom for all. Her bravery and steadfastness sparked the imaginations of those who knew her or came in contact with her. She formed friendships with abolitionists, politicians, writers, and intellectuals. After the war, Harriet settled in Auburn, New York, and began a new career as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist. John Tubman had been killed in 1867, and Harriet married Nelson Davis, a war veteran, in 1869. That same year, Sarah Bradford published a short biography: “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” bringing brief fame and some financial relief to Harriet and her family. But she struggled financially the rest of her life and, denied her own military pension, she eventually received a pension as the widow of Nelson Davis, and later, a Civil War nurse’s pension.

 

Her humanitarian work triumphed with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located on land abutting her own property in Auburn, which she success­fully purchased by mortgage and then transferred to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903.

 

Active in the suffrage movement since 1860, Harriet Tubman continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died in her 90s on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York. Brave, determined, tenacious, and generous, a woman who devoted her life to selflessly helping others, she would be considered a most remarkable heroine in any generation.

 

 

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