In honour of Black History Month, meet Harriet Tubman. An escaped slave she was a ‘conductor’ in the Underground Railroad and served as a nurse and spy during the civil war.
“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” – Harriet Tubman
Harriet was born Araminta Ross, in Maryland around 1820-22, her exact date of birth is not recorded. She was one of nine siblings.
By the age of 5, Harriet was rented out by her owner to neighbours as a nanny for sick children.
At 12 Harriet intervened to keep her master from beating a slave who tried to escape. She was hit in the head with a heavy metal weight, leaving her with chronic narcolepsy and migraines for the rest of her life.
In 1844 Harriet married John Tubman, a free black man. She took his surname and took her mother’s name of Harriet instead of Araminta.
Harriet escaped from slavery twice.
The first time on September 17, 1849, with her brothers. But two weeks into their escape the men had second thoughts and went back, forcing Harriet to return with them.
Soon afterwards, Harriet escaped alone. With the help of Quakers and the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organised system made up of enslaved and free black people, white abolitionists and other activists.
Harriet journeyed north for 90 miles by foot, mainly at night guided by the North Star. The journey would have taken anywhere from between five days to three weeks.
She crossed into Pennsylvania, a free state, and recalled:
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Between 1850 and 1860 Harriet became a ‘conductor’ in the Underground Railroad. She received the name “Moses” because of this, as she never “lost a passenger.” She made the 90-mile trip south 11 times, saving family members and non-family from slavery, where she rescued 70 to 100 people.
While popular legend persists that a reward of $40,000 was put out for Harriet’s capture, this was a figure created many years later to drum up support for Harriet’s claim for the Civil War Pension.
In fact, slaveholders in the region never expected that ‘Minty’ the petite five-foot-tall disabled slave who ran away years earlier and never came back, could be behind so many escapes.
During one of her trips south, she tried to get her husband, John, to come with her. But he refused as he had remarried during the two years that Harriet had been away.
Despite the efforts of the slaveowners, Harriet was never captured, nor were the fugitives she guided.
Harriet Tubman is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military.
During the Civil War Harriet served as an armed scout and spy. She would wander the streets under Confederate control and learn from the enslaved population about troop placements and supply lines. She helped many of these individuals find food, shelter, and even jobs in the North.
As a nurse, Tubman dispensed herbal remedies to black and white soldiers dying from infection and disease.
Harriet was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. She guided three steamer ships in the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
After the war, Tubman joined the women’s suffrage movement, cared for her ageing parents, and worked with white writer Sarah Bradford on her autobiography as a source of income. Harriet was denied her military pension for 30 years and was finally awarded $20 a month for her service in 1899.
Harriet remarried a Union Soldier, Nelson Davies. The couple later adopted a daughter, Gertie.
In her later life, Harriet opened ‘The Harriet Tubman Home For the Aged’ in 1908. She was later admitted to the home named in her honour in 1911.
She died of pneumonia, surrounded by her family and friends, at the age of 93 on March 10, 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room:
“I go to prepare a place for you.”
Harriet Tubman was buried with military honours at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn
Featured Image: Harriet Tubman 1895, National Portrait Gallery.