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People & Ideas: Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Source: Library of Congress

Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1820, Harriet Tubman (named Araminta Ross at birth) is remembered for challenging stereotypes of race, gender and class. As a child, she learned Bible stories from her mother, finding inspiration in the Exodus narrative and rejecting the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters. She would later become known as "Moses" for her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves North to freedom.

As a teenager, Tubman suffered a traumatic head injury that would cause a lifetime of seizures, along with powerful visions and vivid dreams that she ascribed to God. She would rely on these visions first in planning her own escape from slavery and later, when leading others to freedom in the North.

In 1849, fearing that she would be sold and separated from her family, Tubman plotted her escape. By night, she followed the North Star and relied on the Underground Railroad, a network of free blacks and white abolitionists, including members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. She arrived in Philadelphia and later recalled: "When I found that I crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

She soon returned to Maryland to lead members of her family to freedom. Under cover of darkness, she employed an arsenal of deceptive tactics and tricks to conceal her identity. Repeatedly returning to the South, she led approximately 70 people to safety. As she later said, "I can say what most conductors can't say -- I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

In 1855, Tubman met John Brown, the ardent abolitionist who was planning a raid on Harpers Ferry. Her knowledge of the geography and support networks in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware was a gold mine for Brown and his men.

Like Frederick Douglass, Tubman was deeply disappointed by Abraham Lincoln's reluctance to support immediate emancipation for slaves. During the war, she worked for the Union as a cook, nurse, laundress, scout and spy. To make money, she sold homemade pies and root beer. In 1863, she led a group of black soldiers and scouts on surveillance missions along the Southeastern seaboard and worked with Col. James Montgomery to lead a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina in which 700 slaves were freed. Despite her service to the Union cause, she received no pay or compensation.

After the war, Harriet Tubman settled in Auburn, N.Y., where she met Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran 22 years her junior. They married in 1869 and adopted a daughter, Gertie. Tubman became an active proponent of women's suffrage, working alongside Susan B. Anthony. In 1896, she was the keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The following year, she was honored by a series of receptions in Boston. Still poor despite her prominence, she sold a cow to afford the train ticket.

Harriet Tubman died in 1913. Just before her death, she told those gathered around her, "I go to prepare a place for you." She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in New York; Booker T. Washington delivered the eulogy.

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Published October 11, 2010

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