Harriet Tubman

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Biography of Harriet Tubman, who was a freedom fighter for enslaved African Americans in the United States.

After escaping slavery herself, she carried out thirteen rescue missions in which she released nearly 300 slaves. To do this, her used the anti-slavery network known as the “underground railway”.

Childhood and life in slavery

Harriet Tubman was born in 1821 on a plantation in Bucktown, Maryland.

Her parents, Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, were a slave marriage that had eleven children.

Their ancestors had come to the United States from Africa in the early 18th century.

Her master, Edward Brodas, gave her the name of Araminta, and when she was little she was called by the diminutive “Minty”.

Esclavos Harriet Tubman
Slave family in the southern United States, mid-19th century. Credit: web milenio.wordpress.com

When “Minty” was five years old she started working in domestic service.

She received no education of any kind. Her master’s wife kept her working during the day, and at night she had to watch that none of the children cried.

At the age of six, a woman named Susan entrusted her with the mission of watching over a baby while he was sleeping.

If the boy woke up crying, Miss Susan lashed poor Harriet with a whip.

This happened several times a day and the scars were marked for life.

Harriet fled for the first time

One day, when Harriet was seven years old, tired of the mistreatment and the constant beatings they gave her, she ran away from the house and hid in a nearby pigsty for five days.

There she fed on the food they threw to the animals.

When she returned to the house a few days later, she was whipped without compassion.

This episode deeply marked her and she never abandoned the firm desire to flee.

When she was ten years old, her masters came to call her Harriet and sent her to work in the fields, on the cotton plantations; a very hard job and with endless working hours.

Harriet Tubman cotton
The economy of the southern United States in the 19th century was tied to slave labor. Credit: web sobrehistoria.com

The girl Harriet defended a slave

Harriet had been working in the field for about three years, when one of the foremen ordered her to help whip one of the slaves.

She refused and the slave tried to escape.

Her gesture was somewhat similar to the one she had 100 years later, in Africa, Marguerite Barankitse defending the children of Burundi.

In order to stop the escaping slave, the foreman threw a kilogram weight at him; with such bad aim that he went to hit Harriet’s head and knocked her unconscious.

Bleeding and semi-conscious, she returned to her owner’s house. She remained there for two days without receiving medical assistance.

Due to the wound and the strong blow, throughout her life Harriet suffered attacks of dizziness, vertigo and migraines. In addition, she was left with the stigma of a rebel slave.

Harriet’s family dismembered by the boss

Harriet’s mother struggled to keep the family together, but Master Brodess sold three of her daughters.

The family was separated forever. The good woman managed to hide Moses, the youngest of her children.

When the master and the buyer found the child, the desperate mother even threatened to kill them.

Between excited and scared, the two men gave up and left little Moses alone.

As Harriet grew older, the foremen assigned her increasingly hard field work, such as plowing or hauling logs.

She began to faint and something like epilepsy. Brodess tried to sell her, without success.

Harriet Tubman venta de esclavos
Black women were a very cheap commodity in the southern United States. Credit: web teinteresa.es

As she was illiterate, her knowledge of the Bible had been acquired thanks to the stories her mother had told her since she was a child.

She found her guidance in the teachings of the Old Testament. After her head trauma, she began to experience visions and dreams, which she considered signs of the presence of God.

This religious perspective profoundly influenced her entire life.

Harriet makes up her mind to escape slavery

In 1844 Harriet was forced by her master to marry John Tubman, a free black man.

The marriage was complicated because she was still a slave.

This made any child of her would become a slave.

Five years later, when Harriet was 28, she became ill again; so her value as a slave decreased, and the master Edward Brodess tried to sell her.

But he did not find any buyer, despite the fact that for weeks he had been carrying potential buyers.

Soon after, Brodess died. His widow Eliza began to manage the sale of the family slaves.

Harriet decided to flee, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her.

The decision to escape was very dangerous, as the slavers used all means to recover what they considered “their property”: horse patrols, dogs of prey and announcements of rewards for capturing the fugitives.

She wanted to leave with her husband and children, but John Tubman objected.

Harriet decided to escape alone.

On a dark summer night in 1849, she escaped north.

She had to travel about 145 kilometers, on foot, for three weeks, through Maryland and Delaware, until she arrived in Philadelphia.

Harriet received help from the “underground railroad”

Throughout that journey, Harriet was assisted by black and white men who were anti-slavery and associated with the group called the “Underground Railroad”.

This group of abolitionists, Quakers, and black and white men, had established a series of houses, barns, caves, and hiding places for runaway slaves to use in their flight to the north and to freedom.

Slaves Harriet Tubman
The underground railway helped thousands of slaves escape. Credit: web supercurioso.com

Harriet Tubman’s arrival in Philadelphia as a free woman was a whole new awakening.

According to her memories: “When I found out that I had crossed the border, I looked at my hands to see if I was still the same person. The sun with its golden rays crossed the trees and fell on the fields; and I felt like I was in Heaven“.

Harriet Tubman decided to work on freeing slaves

For a living, Harriet was employed as a maid in a hotel.

But, from the first day she started saving money; and she resolved to devote herself, as much as she could, to freeing those who continued to live under the yoke of slavery.

In Philadelphia she met William Still, a black man called the “driver”.

With him she continued to learn more about the hiding system.

She decided to use the “underground railroad” to “drive” black slaves from the south, to the freedom that awaited them in the north.

The history of the underground railway

Harriet Tubman’s name will always be linked to the “underground railway”.

In reality, it was neither a railroad nor an underground one, but an underground network organized to help African American slaves escaping from the plantations.

This network consisted of both African-Americans who had been slaves, and white activists sympathetic to the abolitionist movement.

Its members used rail terms metaphorically to refer to their activities.

In addition to Quakers, people of the most varied beliefs, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, agnostics, participated in the underground railway network.

Slaves Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman fought her entire life against slavery. Credit: web laislabronka.wordpress.com

The journey was made through swamps, rivers and forests, traveling at night and hiding by day.

This exhausting road, which sometimes was several hundred kilometers, was made by entire families who took the children with them.

They called “machinists” those who helped fugitive blacks in their places of origin, in slave states of the South.

They provided them with costumes, maps, instructions on places to stay and sometimes accompanied them as guides during the journey.

They were very bold activists, as helping runaway slaves was punishable even by death.

The “stations” of the railway were private houses where the fugitives could hide, eat, rest, receive medical assistance, and information about the next stage of the trip.

A Quaker couple living in Newport were “station chiefs” for more than twenty years.

About 2,000 “passengers”, runaway slaves, passed through their “station”.

The escape routes were called “lanes”.

The headquarters was the “Central Station”, and the northern States were the “destination”.

Harriet Tubman driver
Harriet Tubman was arguably the most popular “driver”. Credit: web vidaalterna.com/zarlene

Harriet Tubman was arguably the most popular “driver” in “underground railroad” history.

Harriet Tubman did not stop rescuing southern slaves

In her work, she returned up to 19 times to the South to help hundreds of slaves escape.

Before long, she was known by the nickname Moses, just as the Biblical prophet had led the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, she led the slaves to freedom.

It was not until 1897 that Harriet revealed some names of the numerous collaborators and of the multiple places and houses used by the “underground railway”, to guide slaves to safer areas such as New York, New England and Canada.

Saving slaves in the 1850s

In December 1850, Harriet learned that her niece Kessiah, who was married to a free black man, was to be sold in Cambridge, Maryland.

She did something few slaves used to do: she voluntarily returned to the land of her slavery.

Using the underground railroad, and with the help of Kessiah’s husband, she managed to get her niece and two children out; After a long journey, they all arrived in Philadelphia.

During the following spring, she returned to Maryland to guide other members of her family to freedom.

On this second trip, she helped her brother Moses and two other men escape.

In 1851 she rescued another of her brothers and her family. By the end of the 1950s, she had managed to rescue almost 300 people.

When the federal government approved the “Fugitive Slave Law” that governed the entire territory, it was no longer certain that they would settle in the northern zone.

Harriet then began taking the fugitives to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.

Harriet Tubman Canada
St. Catharines is a city located in the Canadian province of Ontario. Credit: web es.wikipedia.org

In December 1851, Tubman led a group of eleven fugitives to Canada. Along the way, they stayed in the house of abolitionist Frederick Douglas.

In his biography Douglas writes: “I once had eleven fugitives under my roof at the same time, who stayed with me until I raised enough money to send them to Canada. It was the largest group that I sheltered and I had difficulty providing them with food and accommodation… ”.

Harriet Tubman’s paths intersected those of Dorothea Dix. From 1841, Dorothea Dix  dedicated her life to improving the situation of the mentally ill in the USA. Since 1849, Harriett Tubman has consistently risked her own to free more than 300 black slaves in the southern United States.

Physical and moral characteristics of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was a small, broad-faced woman with few teeth, dressed modestly.

She often dressed in a hat and carried two live chickens to give the impression of being a street vendor.

She looked like a frail woman, but possessed extraordinary physical endurance, muscular strength, and great mental strength.

On rescue raids Harriet was very cautious and cunning. Her success was based on intelligence, planning the operation and determination when making the trips.

She carried sleeping pills to sleep the babies, thus preventing them from crying.

Actriz Cynthia
Actress Cynthia Erevo played Harriet Tubman in the movies. Credit: web uproxx.com/life/harriet-tubman-young-new-photo

Her job of freeing slaves was very dangerous

Her dangerous work required large doses of ingenuity.

Normally she worked during the winter months, when the nights were long and dark and people stayed at home.

This reduced the chances of the group being discovered.

Once the slaves were prepared to escape, she left the city on a Saturday night.

She knew that newspapers would not print news until Monday morning.

Her religious faith was an important motivation to venture again and again in Maryland.

The visions that she had from her adolescence due to her head injury were interpreted by her as divine premonitions.

In addition, she used spiritual songs to send encrypted messages, warning of the existence of dangers or indicating that the path was clear.

Harriet Tubman was an underground rail guide for eight years.

It is estimated that there were more than 300 fugitives, including her own family, whom she managed to take to Canada.

For the rest of her life she boasted that “she had never lost a single passenger”.

Harriet Tubman managed to free her parents

In 1857, she carried out one of her most important rescues, that of her own parents.

Two years earlier, in 1855, her father Ben had bought her mother for 20 dollars

But, although both were free, the area was hostile territory for them.

In addition, her father had covered up a group of eight escaped slaves; and that he was at risk of being arrested.

A senator made it possible for Harriet to have a home

One of the supporters of the abolitionist cause, New York Senator and Secretary of State William Seward sold Harriet, under very favorable conditions, land in Auburn, New York State, to build a house.

Harriet Tubman built her house and installed her parents there, whom she had previously taken from the south to Philadelphia, and then to Canada.

There in Auburn, they were able to lead normal lives.

For years, she welcomed her relatives and friends, offering a safe place for black Americans seeking a better life in the north.

Casa de Harriet Tubman
New York State has kept the house where Harriet lived with her family. Credit: web nyhistory.com

In 1859, in New York, Harriet mobilized thousands of blacks and abolitionist whites before the Supreme Court to remove Charles Nalle, a fugitive slave whom the authorities intended to return to slavery.

During the altercation with the Police, Harriet was fiercely beaten, although they finally accomplished their purpose of getting Charles Nalle out of there.

Harriet Tubman during the American Civil War

When the Civil War began in 1861, Harriet saw the possibility of slavery being abolished if the North achieved victory.

Shee offered her experience and skill, and joined a group of abolitionists from Boston and Philadelphia.

At Port Royal she worked as an army nurse preparing remedies with local plants, to prevent soldiers from suffering from dysentery.

She treated men sick with smallpox and never contracted the disease. This generated comments regarding her being blessed by God.

In May 1862, Harriet brought a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts to General David Hunter, who was in South Carolina, via the Underground Railroad; the governor offered help for the war.

They soon asked her to guide a group of explorers throughout the Port Royal region.

Her knowledge was invaluable because the swamps and rivers of South Carolina were very similar to those on the east coast of Maryland.

Harriet became the first woman to lead an armed assault. When Montgomery’s troops proceeded to storm the Combahee River, she acted as a counselor and accompanied the troops.

War Harriet Tubman
In Operation Combahee River the great heroine was Harriet Tubman. Credit: web libcom.org/history

On the morning of June 2, 1863, Harriet guided three steamboats through the Confederate waters, which were full of mines, to the mainland.

When the sirens of the ships sounded, the slaves in the area understood that they were being released and ran towards the ships.

More than 700 slaves were rescued in the Combahee River operation.

In 1864 she returned to Auburn to attend to the health problems of his parents.

Near the end of the war, she returned to Virginia to work for a short time at Fort Monroe.

The last years of Harriet Tubman’s life

When the war ended in 1865, she returned to Auburn.

With enormous sadness, she saw how little white people’s views of people of color had changed.

Despite her years of service, she never received a regular salary and for years was denied any form of compensation.

The procedures to obtain a government pension only caused her greater expenses.

It was not until 1890 that she was awarded a pension, but not for her services, but because her husband, Nelson Davis, had died: a paltry widow’s pension for the services her husband had rendered to the country.

During the post-war period, Tubman was also active working on women’s rights and trying to achieve universal suffrage.

For this she collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and other feminists.

Her fame had reached Europe at that time, and even Queen Victoria sent her a present and invited her to spend a season in England.

Despite her poverty and illiteracy, she devoted her time to raising money for the education of former slaves, collecting clothing for poor children and helping the elderly who were unable to work.

In 1869, she had fallen in love with a former slave and former Union Army soldier, Nelson Davis, whom she had met during the war.

Despite the fact that she was twenty-two years older than Nelson, they were married on March 18, 1869 in the Presbyterian Church.

From that moment they lived together 20 years.

In 1874 they adopted a girl named Gertie.

In the same year, her friend Sarah Bradford published her biography: “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman”.

With the money obtained from the publication of this book, she was able to finish paying for his house.

For two decades many of her friends and allies tried to convince the government to give Harriet a pension for her services during the Civil War.

Activism in favor of slaves and women

During her last years she worked to promote the suffrage cause, the right of women to vote.

She began to attend acts of suffrage organizations. She soon began giving speeches narrating her own actions and the sacrifices of other women during the Civil War.

When the “National Federation of African American Women” was founded in 1886, Harriet Tubman delivered the opening address.

This activism brought a new wave of admiration among the United States press.

In 1897 a suffragette newspaper held a series of celebrations in Boston in honor of Harriet Tubman, but she was bankrupt again, and had to sell a cow in order to buy the train ticket and attend the events.

During her old age the problems derived from the wound of her adolescence continued to affect her.

In the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

In 1911 her condition was very delicate and she was admitted to the residence that had been built in her honor.

A New York newspaper disclosed her serious health condition and poor financial situation.

People were generous and Harriet received a number of spontaneous donations.

Harriet Tubman died a nonagenarian from pneumonia on March 10, 1913. She expired surrounded by her friends and family.

She was buried with military honors at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. The city honored her with a plaque at the Palace of Justice. It says: “I never run my train off track”.

Acknowledgments to Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was widely known and respected by people, during her life.

In the years after her death, she became a legend of her country. Dozens of students were named Harriet in her honor.

In a survey conducted at the end of the 20th century, she ranked third as one of the most famous people in American history.

Her life story has inspired generations of African Americans in struggles for equality and for civil rights.

The Episcopal Church of the United States includes her among its saints, in its prayer book; and March 10 is the day dedicated to Tubman and Sojourner Truth in the Lutheran Saints Calendar.

Harriet Tubman’s home was restored by the Sion African Methodist Episcopal Church. Converted into “Tubman Museum” it receives a large number of visitors.

In 1944, the United States Maritime Commission launched the SS Harriet Tubman.

In 1978, the United States Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring African-American characters including Harriet.

Billete Harriet Tubman
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman the first woman to appear on a dollar bill. Credit: web elconfidencial.com

In 2016 the Treasury Department announced that Tubman would be the first woman whose face would appear on a 20 dollars bill.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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