Today I am celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was born a slave in Maryland. Because of this, we don’t know when her birthday was. Harriet did not even know what year she was born, never mind what day. It was probably some time between 1820 and 1825. Harriet escaped from slavery in 1849. Then she returned to free many other slaves. She was a spy for the Union during the Civil War. In later life she was active in the cause of women’s suffrage and built an old people’s home for coloured people. So we can’t celebrate her birthday, but because she did so many fantastic things in her life, we do know that she died on March 10th 1913.
Harriet was born Araminta Harriet Ross (Minty) to parents Ben Ross and Harriet ‘Rit’ Green who were both slaves. They were owned by Anthony Thompson and Mary Brodess. Ben and Rit had nine children and three of their daughters were sold to a distant plantation, separating them from the family forever. When someone else came to buy her youngest son, Rit hid him for a month and then threatened to split open the head of anyone who tried to take him away. The sale was abandoned. It was probably a formative experience for young Minty and likely influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.
She had a terrible childhood, being hired out to people who beat her. As an adolescent she witnessed an incident when a slave was found out of the fields without permission. His owner ordered Minty to assist him in restraining the man but she refused. The slave owner then threw a 2 lb metal weight at him, but it missed him and hit her on the head. It was a serious injury that she never recovered from. She suffered from seizures and periods of narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Already a deeply religious person, she also began to experience visions and vivid dreams that she interpreted as signs from God.
Her father was freed at the age of 45, though in fact, this made little difference to his status, as he still had to keep working for his former owner. Later, Harriet would find out that her mother was also supposed to have been freed at 45, but her owners had ignored the fact. She was not in a position to challenge this legally. In 1844 she married a free man called John Tubman and it was about this time she changed her name to Harriet. Not much is known about their marriage but if they had any children, they would have had the same status as Harriet and would also have been slaves.
In 1849, she escaped from her owners along with two of her brothers. They lost heart and returned to the plantation and Harriet went back with them. Shortly afterwards, she escaped again, this time alone. She would have got away using a series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad and she managed to get across the state border to Pennsylvania where there was no slavery. Later she said: “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.”
But rather than stay safe in the north, Harriet returned to Maryland in 1850 to free members of her family. It would be the first of many covert trips she made across the border. Occasionally she came across a former owner but she cleverly managed to avoid detection. Simply by carrying a few chickens around, or pretending to read a newspaper (she couldn’t read) she found that the men simply didn’t notice her. As well as members of her family, including her parents, she guided many other slaves to freedom. In 1851, she attempted to free her husband, John Tubman, but found that he had married someone else and was quite happy where he was. Rather than make a scene, she just found other slaves who did want to be free and took them instead. Harriet Tubman was given the nickname ‘Moses’ because, like Moses, she led her people to freedom.
In 1850, the US government passed a law that allowed escaped slaves to be returned even when they were living in a state where there was no slavery. Harriet re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, where people would be safe. In 1859 she was sold a piece of land in Auburn, New York by a US senator called William H Seward who was a fervent opponent of slavery. Despite the risk of arrest she brought her parents, who were then in Canada, to live with her there.
During the Civil War she worked for the Union Army as a cook and a nurse, but she was later employed as a spy. Her ability to travel in secret in enemy territory was extremely useful. In 1863, she led an assault on plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. She guided three steamboats around mines that had been laid by the Confederate Army. They burned the plantations and freed more than 750 slaves.
Harriet was never paid very much for her work during the Civil War and she remained poor. She worked to support her family and also took in boarders. Among them was a Civil War veteran called Nelson Davis. They fell in love and were married in 1869. He was twenty-two years younger than her. They lived together for twenty years. Later in life, she devoted herself to the cause of women’s suffrage. She travelled New York, Boston and Washington DC speaking of women’s right to vote. She described her actions during the Civil War and used many other examples of women from history as evidence of women’s equality to men. In 1897, in Boston, there were a series of receptions honouring her lifetime of service to the nation. Harriet had spent so much of her hard earned money helping others that she had to sell a cow in order to buy the train ticket to get there.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, she donated a piece of land to build a home for aged and poor coloured people. In 1911, she was admitted there herself and died in 1913. Since her death, Harriet Tubman has become a magnificent source of inspiration for civil right activists. She devoted her whole life to helping others and freed somewhere in the region of a thousand slaves. It was dangerous work but they all made it through, she never lost a single life.