Harriet Tubman: Moses of her people

The Underground Railroad saved thousands from the hell of slavery, but one name will always stand out as the symbol of courage, selflessness and freedom, writes Jonny Wilkes.

Harriet Tubman

She had escaped from hell. The hell of bondage, racism, terror, degradation, back-breaking work, beatings and whippings that marked the life of a slave in the United States.

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Harriet Tubman ran away from her Maryland plantation and trekked, alone, nearly 90 miles to reach the free state of Pennsylvania.

The treacherous journey meant travelling at night through woods and across streams, with little food, and fearing anyone who would happily send her back to
her owners to ontraollect a reward.

If not for a clandestine network of routes and safe houses, organised to aid ‘fugitive slaves’ heading north, Tubman may have never made it to Philadelphia.

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” she recalled of her 1849 escape. “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.”

The Underground Railroad delivered Tubman to a place where she could live relatively safe from bondage, yet while others faced brutality and despair, she would risk her life as the network’s most famous conductor. Tubman escaped hell, only to turn and walk back into it.

Strength and Courage

Araminta Ross, Tubman’s birth name, would have been put to work on her owners’ plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, almost as soon as she learned to walk. Her eight brothers and sisters faced the same brutal introduction to their lives as slaves.

The exhausting field work, and long hours of domestic service as a maid and later a cook, left her malnourished and occasionally ill.

Like the millions of slaves in America, the young Minty became all-too familiar with horrific physical and emotional abuse from her masters.

While working as a nursemaid at the age of just five or six – thought to have been around 1825-30 – she was whipped and beaten as punishment whenever the baby cried.

Yet from Minty’s violent early years came a devout Christian faith, built on being read Bible stories by her mother, as well as a remarkable strength, courage and willingness to put herself in danger to help others.

These qualities served her so well on the Underground Railroad, but almost led to her death as a child.

One day, when she had been sent to fetch supplies from a dry goods store, Minty found herself caught between a slave who had left his plantation without permission and his pursuing overseer.

Not only did she refuse orders to help restrain the runaway, but she blocked the white man’s path, causing him to hurl a heavy weight in frustration. It struck Minty in the head, knocking her unconscious in a bloody heap.

With no medical care forthcoming for a damaged slave, Minty suffered from seizures, sudden sleeping episodes similar to narcolepsy, and began having vivid religious visions. These continued throughout her life (although she claimed them to be premonitions from God).

Her head injury elicited no sympathy from her owners, who put her right back to work following a failed attempt to sell her.

Years rolled by with no relief from the terrible conditions, though all the hours of hard labour made Minty surprisingly strong for her diminutive five-foot frame. It was about 1844 when she became Harriet Tubman – having married a free black named John Tubman and choosing to adopt her mother’s first name – yet it was a further five years before she took her first steps to freedom.

What makes Tubman’s escape from slavery more extraordinary is that she had to do it twice. On 17 September 1849, she headed north with two of her brothers, only to return to the plantation when Harry and Ben had second thoughts.

Instead of going on without them, Tubman made sure they got back before making her second attempt. On foot, the 90-mile journey could have taken her anywhere between one and three weeks.

But soon after reaching Philadelphia and proclaiming it to be “heaven”, Tubman came to the realisation that her work had only just begun – she now wanted to rescue her family and friends from the evils of slavery too.

So in 1850, she travelled back down to Maryland in order to bring back her niece Kessiah and her husband, and their two daughters.

That was the first of 13 trips Tubman made as a ‘conductor’ of the Underground Railroad over the next decade (some accounts say she went as many as 19 times).

Her success with using and expanding the network to get escaped slaves to safety led leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to call her “Moses of her people”.

It is thought that she rescued around 300 slaves directly – including some of her brothers, their families and her own parents – and gave instructions to help dozens more. Tubman used to boast that she never lost a single passenger.

Being a conductor meant walking through slavery territory, where she could be snatched by armed slave hunters, meaning Tubman voluntarily risked her life each time. It only became more dangerous with the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to their owners.

As this led to a rise in black people, slave and free, being abducted, even the free states increasingly became an unsafe final destination for the Underground Railroad. Tubman, therefore, had to find routes to British-owned Canada.

Yet her fortitude and belief that God watched over her never wavered. Fellow conductor William Still once wrote of Tubman: “Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear.”

Time and time again, the uneducated, illiterate Tubman proved her ingenuity to keep slaves in her care safe and fed on the long journey. She would often travel in winter, when the nights were longer, and set off with her ‘passengers’ on a Saturday evening – as runaway notices wouldn’t appear in newspapers until Monday morning.

While on route, Tubman carried a pistol, both for defence and to keep the slaves going. “You’ll be free or die,” became her resolute message.

Tubman became the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, known to abolitionists and activists, such as John Brown. Before his doomed 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in the hopes of sparking a slave revolt, he consulted who he dubbed ‘General Tubman’, and allegedly wanted her to be part of the attack.

Such was Tubman’s reputation that she bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York – where she lived with her elderly parents, who she rescued in one of her final trips – from anti-slavery senator (and future Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln) William H Seward.

Heroism and Poverty

Although the Underground Railroad essentially ended when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, it did not signal the last of Tubman’s heroic deeds.

Never thinking of her own well-being, she served in the Union Army as a cook, laundress and nurse, tending to wounded soldiers and fugitive slaves, who were referred to as ‘contrabands’.

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – laying the foundations for the abolition of slavery – Tubman led a band of scouts into Confederate territory, utilising the skills she had mastered as a conductor.

The information that she gathered allowed Colonel James Montgomery to attack enemy positions with devastating effect, and saw her become the first woman to lead an armed assault.

On 2 June 1863, Tubman guided Union steamboats along the Combahee River to raid plantations in South Carolina. More than 750 slaves were freed.

But what did Tubman receive for three years of loyal service? Such little pay that she had to support herself by selling homemade pies, ginger bread and root beer, and no compensation at all for three decades.

Tubman spent years struggling in poverty, made only worse in 1873 when two men scammed her out of $2,000, but that did not mean that she faded into obscurity.

Still a popular symbol of the anti-slavery movement, she was the subject of two biographies (published in 1869 and 1886), with all of the proceeds going to help pay her bills.

Regardless of money troubles, Tubman continued to fight for others for the rest of her life. She gave speeches supporting women’s suffrage, and was invited to be the keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.

Her Auburn home became a haven for orphans, the elderly and freed slaves looking for help, which is how she met her second husband, a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis. (Back in her conductor days, she had gone back to rescue John Tubman, but he had re-married.) Together, Tubman and Davis adopted a baby girl, Gertie.

Tubman’s generosity led to the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on her land in 1908, just a few years before she became one of its patients.

On 10 March 1913, she died of pneumonia, surrounded by family and friends. A devout Christian until the end, her final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you”.

If her actions and achievements aren’t testament enough, these last words perfectly capture a woman who dedicated her life to others, seeking no glory or fame in return. A woman who became an American icon by hiding in shadows. A woman who escaped the hell of being a slave and set about helping others to do the same.

Her friend, the revered abolitionist Frederick Douglass, once wrote to Tubman about her time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad: “Most that 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. I have wrought in the day – you in the night.”

With the recent decision to put Tubman on the new $20 bill, seeing her join presidents and Founding Fathers, it is only right for her labours to be forevermore public, in the day.

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This article was originally published in History Revealed in January 2017.