Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the main leaders of the “Underground Railroad” which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.
Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which she suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.
Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, however, having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the possession of the plantation owners. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.
In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17thSeptember 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.
Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia where she finally entered a Free State. “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 this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived that she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family escape the harsh conditions.
Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.
Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.
During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.
In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and in 1874 adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, however, were never financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.
In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse she received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She eventually died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.
At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History and she is soon to be the face on the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, however, last year a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documented her career. So, perhaps Harriet Tubman may not remain unknown in Europe for long.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon