Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Benjamin Powelson, Auburn, New York, 1868-69, public domain via the Library of Congress
On this anniversary of her death on March 10, 1913, let us remember and salute Harriet Tubman, that brave, intrepid, and most ingenious of women.
Born on the eastern shore of Maryland as Araminta Ross around 1820, she was put to work very young, from field labor to housework to child tending. She suffered regular physical abuse all the while, including whippings and a cracked skull from a two-pound weight thrown her way as she refused to interfere with the escape of a fellow slave. The resulting injury caused her much pain and difficulty from the age of 12 until she received brain surgery in her late 70’s. She was both disabled and inspired by her injury: she suffered severe headaches and narcolepsy, but she also experienced visions which she believed were sent by God.
But her injury apparently little to dampen her energy or undermine her ingenuity. In 1849, Minty, as she was nicknamed, escaped to Philadelphia to avoid being sold further South where there was a good chance she’d suffer under an even harsher enslavement. Her first husband, John Tubman, a free man, refused to go with her. The next year, Harriet Tubman (she adopted her mother’s first name upon her marriage to Tubman) returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and her niece’s two children. That was the first of 19 rescue missions in which Tubman risked her own freedom by returning to Maryland rescue family, friends, and many other people, about 70 in all. She helped dozens more complete their journeys north to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
Harriet Tubman, 1911, Auburn, New York, from Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, public domain via the Library of Congress
During the Civil War, Tubman would go on to free about ten times as many as she had from Maryland. From 1862-1865, she worked as a nurse, a scout, and a spy for the Union Army. One on occasion, she and Colonel James Montgomery led an expedition into South Carolina to destroy plantations and liberate their enslaved workforces, about 700 people in all.
For the rest of her life, Tubman worked hard to help her fellow black citizens recover and thrive after release from slavery. She worked and raised money to care for orphans and the aged, and she also became a women’s rights activist. Despite her war services and other services on behalf of Americans most in need of help, Tubman received only a fraction of the pension that male veterans received and she struggled with financial hardship for the rest of her life, in no small part because she donated so many of the funds she raised to various causes. She died in 1911 in the Home for the Aged that she established next to her own home in Auburn, New York.
Be further inspired by the great Harriet Tubman through these works of journalism, scholarship, art, and comedy:
Runaway award notice for Harriet Tubman (then also known as ‘Minty’) and her two brothers, 1849. Via ClickAmericana.org
Harriet Ross Tubman (c. 1821-1913) ~ by Shirley Yee for BlackPast.org
Harriet Tubman ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum
Harriet Tubman ~ by Eloise Greenfield, performed by Thelma R. Thomas
Harriet Tubman ~ for the National Park Service website
Harriet Tubman ~ Neal Conan interviews Katherine Clinton for NPR’s Talk of the Nation
Harriet Tubman: American Abolitionist ~ by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Harriet Tubman Leads an Army of Bad Bitches ~ starring Crissle West and Octavia Spencer for Drunk History
Harriet Tubman’s Ballad ~ composed and performed by Veronika Jackson, lyrics by Woody Guthrie
Harriet Tubman’s Path to Freedom ~ by Ron Stodghill for The New York Times
Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century~ by Kristen T. Oertel
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Part I and Part II ~ with hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey for Stuff You Missed in History Class
Harriet Tubman: Underground Railroad “Conductor”, Nurse, Spy ~ at Civil War Trust website
Iconic Americans: Meet Harriet (Minty) Tubman ~ by J.C. Shively for I Love American History blog
New Book Documents Courage of Harriet Tubman and Underground Railroad (excerpt) ~ by Eric Foner at The Root
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman ~ by Sarah H. Bradford, 1869
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