By: Victoria Yates
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross around 1820, a slave on the Edward Brodess plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Tubman’s father was a skilled woodsman on the Thompson plantation while her mother worked as a cook for the Brodess family. As one of nine children she spent much of her time caring for her younger siblings. At the tender age of five or six, Tubman was already working, being hired out to a local woman as a nursemaid, instructed to watch the woman’s baby while it slept to prevent the baby’s cries waking its mother. If the baby was heard the punishment was a whipping, the scars of which she carried for the rest of her life. As with all slave families her parents had to fight to keep their children with them, losing three of their daughters after they were sold off. Harriett’s mother was nevertheless successful in preventing her son being sent to Georgia. The strength of her mother’s offensive is often cited as encouraging Tubman’s revolutionary tendencies.
When Tubman grew older she was hired out to other farms to work the land in progressively more physically demanding tasks. As a young teen Tubman refused to aid an overseer in punishing another slave and was hit on the head when he threw an iron weight as the victim tried to flee. The resulting injuries left her near dead and suffering from seizures and unconscious spells for the rest of her life. The injuries occurred around the time that Tubman was beginning to develop her religiosity. After her convalescence she came to have dreams and visions that she interpreted as signs from God.
In 1844 Tubman married John Tubman, a free black man, shortly thereafter taking her mother’s name ‘Harriet’ along with his surname. Although her father had been freed in accordance with a stipulation in his master’s will, the rest of the family remained under the Brodess’s control. And when, in 1849, their owner died there was a fear that they would be sold to pay debts. Tubman decided to run away. While her husband refused to go with her she went instead with two of her brothers (who eventually turned back).
She however persevered and used the underground railway to reach Philadelphia. There she took a job as a domestic helper, saving her money and hoping to one-day help her family reach freedom. Regulations around 1850 strengthened obligations on law enforcement agents to return fugitive slaves and increased the punishments against those who abetted escape. This combined with the racial tensions between the expanding Irish population and the black community in Philadelphia made it a difficult time.
Around this time Tubman learned of the planned sale of her niece and two children forcing her to return to Maryland. There, Tubman aided in their escape with the help of several free relatives and managed to bring them back with her to Philadelphia. She repeated this the following year when she successfully brought more of her family out of slavery. By this time her work was growing in infamy amongst her family and she grew in confidence. She became linked with prominent abolitionists from that time and utilizing the same underground railroad that had saved her several years earlier. In total, Tubman is estimated to have helped around 300 people to freedom (including both her parents), rescuing not only her family but also many others that wished to be free. Her role placed her in grave danger with rewards for her capture totalling incredible amounts at its height. But against the odds Tubman was never caught and delivered every passenger to freedom.
In the Civil War Tubman joined the abolitionists working as a Union nurse. But she soon expanded her work to include more military tasks such as spying and scouting, even reportedly commanding a military raid (possibly one of the first women to do so). When the war ended her humanitarian efforts didn’t flag, continuing her work in activism, and as a suffragist. She married her second husband in 1869, having been widowed two years previously. But she struggled financially for the remainder of her life, largely sustaining herself on her widow’s pension and Civil War nurse’s pension. Tubman died at age 91 in 1913.
Tubman was a remarkable leader whose life was one of hardship, and adversity. Her strength of spirit and enduring belief in what is right led her to place herself at risk for the sake of others. She is a true beacon and an inspiration whose legacy continues to flourish in all work towards universal human rights.