|Portrait of Harriet Tubman
|Image Credit: Mooreland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University
Harriet Tubman was a daring abolitionist and civil war freedom fighter of the nineteenth century. She was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in about 1821. During her childhood she was subjected to difficult working conditions: by the age of nine she was working as a child nurse and housekeeper and by the age of thirteen she was plowing fields, cutting wood, and driving oxen. In her early teens, Tubman, in an attempt to prevent the pursuit of a fugitive slave, was struck in the head by a two pund weight intended for the fugitive. Her skull was fractured, causing her to fall asleep in the middle of conversations and while working on tasks for the rest of her life (Brawley 29). As a result of her condition, Tubman was no longer considered of value as a worker to her master. She would later prove through her involvement in the Underground railroad and the Civil War just how valuable a worker she truly was.
Harriet's involvement in the Underground Railroad first began when she was around the age of twenty-five and her master died. Fearing that she and her family would be sold, she set out in pursuit of freedom in the North with two of her brothers. Along the way her brothers decided they could no longer continue on the journey because of the constant fear of being captured and returned to their lives as slaves (Bradford 28). With no money in her pocket, and using only the North Star as her guide, Harriet continued on because she was determined to get to the North where she would be free. She is quoted as saying, "I had reasoned dis out in my mind; there was one of two things I had the right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the oder; for no man should take me alive" (Bradford 28). After many nights of traveling and days spent hiding, Harriet Tubman reached the North and was a free woman. Although she was glad to be free, she longed for her family and fellow slaves. Thus, she vowed to bring others to freedom: "I was free and de should be free also, I would make a home for dem in the North and de lord helping me, I would bring dem all dere" (Bradford 32). As a result, Tubman became the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, traveling nineteen times to bring hundreds of slaves to freedom. Tubman was relentless as a conductor. For example, she was known to carry a revolver on her quests to the North in case any runaway slaves decided they could no longer continue on the journey. She would say, "dead niggers tell no lies; you go on or die" (Bradford 33). This no nonsense approach of Harriet's worked. She was so successful at briging slaves to freedom that there was a $40,000 reward out for her capture (Washington 2). Tubman was no longer of "no value".
Although Tubman is most known for her leadership in the Underground Railroad, she also played a significant role in the Civil War. In 1863, when black men joined the military, Tubman chose and commanded a group of black spies and river pilots. Under her leadership, these men conducted intelligence operations and acted as spies throughout the eastern seabords (Washington 2). Tubman's many trips in delivering slaves to freedom provided her with the knowledge of the Confederate held region, and because of this she was able to contribute greatly to the war. As evidence, President Lincoln is said to have willingly listened to the opinions and ideas Harriet had in terms of the war (Brawley 38).
In her later years Tubman settled in Auburn, New York. It is there that she would spend the rest of her life attending women's suffrage meetings, setting up a home for the aging, and fighting for a pension for her contribution the war (Conrad 211). She eventually received a small pension after thirty-five years of fighting for it. Frederick Douglass sympathized with Harriet's lack of recognition in a letter he wrote to her. "The difference between us is very marked. Most of what I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand have labored in a private way" (Brawley 38).
Harriet Tubman was a great leader of the nineteenth century. Whether it was on the Underground Railroad or during the Civil War, people followed her lead, which was a rarity at that time for a woman, let alone an African American woman. Accomplishing much during her lifetime, Tubman was not entirely immune to the restrictions of her gender and race, for she was not always given the recognition that she deserved. However, when she died in 1913, her last rites were military. Known as the "Moses of her people", Harriet Tubman is remembered today as a powerful figure in American History.
Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. New York Corinth Books, 1886.
Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers Press, Inc., 1943.
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