Harriet Tubman: a life of sacrifice and service
Sunday, March 10, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, one of the most remarkable women in American history.
Araminta “Minty” Ross (later Harriet Tubman) was born into slavery in 1820 or 1822 (like most slaves, she was unsure of her birth date), the fifth of nine children near Tobacco Stick, Md. A lifetime of work began at age 5, when she was “loaned out” to another plantation. Tubman noted that even as a young child she would receive as many as six or seven beatings a day.
Despite her diminutive size – about 5 feet tall – Minty was a strong and capable worker, hauling timber, packing and carrying grain on the wharves of Tobacco Stick, and pulling boats laden with stone. No doubt she spoke for millions of blacks who performed back-breaking labor, stating, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”
In 1844, Minty wed John Tubman, a free man of mixed race, and changed her first name to Harriet, possibly out of affection for her mother, also named Harriet. In the spring of 1849, learning that she and two of her brothers were about to be sold, the three siblings decided to escape. (Border-state slaves lived in constant fear of being “sold south” to a plantation in Mississippi or Georgia, for example, never again to see family and friends.) Unsure of the route north, Harriet and her brothers quarreled, eventually gave up their flight and returned. In the fall of 1849, Harriet attempted a second escape, this time alone. She was aided by a network of anti-slavery Quakers on her journey and eventually arrived in Pennsylvania.
Recalling her successful escape, Tubman said that when she had crossed into Pennsylvania, “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 fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Now in her late 20s, Tubman noted that although she was free, “there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.” She was determined to return to Maryland and liberate as many family members as possible. Historian Fergus Bordewich states that for the next decade, Tubman was obsessed with rescuing her kin, convinced “she was a chosen agent of God, who guided her every act.”
When friends cautioned against returning to Maryland, risking capture and enslavement, the deeply religious Tubman stated, “The Lord who told me to take care of my people meant me to do it just so long as I live, and so I do what he told me to do.”
Over the next 10 years, Tubman made 12 or 13 journeys to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, leading approximately 70 to 80 slaves to freedom and indirectly helping 50 or 60 more escape on their own. (Her early biographers put the number of individuals Tubman helped escape at 300, a number that stood for decades until refuted by contemporary historians). As a result of these slave-liberating forays, Tubman was dubbed “the Moses of her people” or “Black Moses.”
In 1851, Harriet returned to Dorchester County, Md., to help her husband, John, a free man who could have departed on his own, move north. Hiding near her husband’s home, she sent word to John that she had come for him. Tubman learned from someone who knew John that her husband had taken another wife, a free black woman, and had no desire to go north.
After Union soldiers captured Port Royal, S.C., in November 1861, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew asked Tubman to go to Beaufort and help care for the many black men, women and children who were now neither plantation slaves or legally free. Tubman arrived in South Carolina in the spring of 1862 and began helping slaves and soldiers alike by way of administering home remedies made from roots and herbs.
Because of her backcountry knowledge, Tubman accompanied a raiding party (most likely as a scout) led by Colonel James Montgomery that liberated some 700 slaves who climbed aboard three gunboats. Sernett argues this raid is the basis of the enduring “General Tubman” myth – that Tubman was the leader of a slave-freeing military expedition. Historian Milton Sernett states unequivocally that Tubman carried no military rank and did not command an Army unit. She was called “general” by her many admirers only in the figurative sense.
Tubman returned to Auburn, N.Y. (a city with a strong abolitionist community and a stop on the Underground Railroad) in the fall of 1865 and would remain there for the rest of her life. By the 1890s, the Tubman residence was home to many destitute individuals. Her neighbor and friend, Helen Tatlock, recalled that the Tubman home “had a great number of young and old, black and white, all poorer than she.” According to Tatlock, Black Moses cared for “the demented, the epileptic, the blind, the paralyzed, the consumptive.” Tubman supported her household raising pigs, chickens and ducks as well as selling fruits and vegetables grown on 7 acres of land.
After a protracted struggle with the federal government, in 1899 the elderly Tubman (who lived on the razor’s edge of poverty most of her life) received a widow’s pension of $8 a month, and $12 a month for her service as a wartime nurse. She was also given a compensatory award of about $500.
Harriet Tubman died of a pulmonary infection in 1913. Ever the caretaker, she quoted scripture shortly before passing: “I go away to prepare a place for you, and where I am, ye may be also.”
Milton Sernett notes that Harriet Tubman’s “life story causes us to reflect on both the good and evil in American society. … As long as some Americans believe they suffer injustice no matter how defined, they will find Tubman a useful symbol. … Her struggles to be free and then her self-sacrificial efforts to help others underscores values we Americans treasure in custom and in law.”
P.S. The Harriet Tubman house is located on 180 South St., Auburn. Go to www.harriethouse.org or call 315-252-2081 for visiting hours.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
Bordewich, F. (2005) “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America,” Harper Collins Publishers: New York, www.lkwdpl.org
Humez, J. (2003) “Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories,” University of Wisconsin Press: Madison
Larson, K. (2004) “Harriet Tubman; Portrait of an American Hero,” Random House: New York
Sernett, M. (2007) “Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History,” Duke University Press: Durham and London