Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross in 1820 or 1821 and died 10 March 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the U.S. Civil War. After escaping from captivity, she made many missions to rescue over 70 slaves using the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists and safe houses. She later helped recruit men for John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. In the post-war era, she helped with the struggle for women's suffrage.

Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, on Edward Brodas plantation near Bucktown. Harriet's ancestors had been brought to America in shackles from Africa during the first half of the 18th Century. Harriet was the 11th child born to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene (slaves of Edward Brodas). Because of her indentured status, Harriet was denied the opportunity for education, leaving her illiterate her entire life. Slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read or write.

As was the custom for many slaves, Harriet began working at an early age. When five years old, she was first sent away from home, "loaned out" to another plantation, checking muskrat traps in icy cold rivers. She quickly became too sick to work and was returned, malnourished and suffering from the cold exposure. Once she recovered, she was loaned out to another plantation, working as a nurse to the planter's infant child. By the age of 12, she was working as a field hand, plowing and hauling wood. At 13, while defending a fellow slave who tried to run away, her overseer struck her in the head with a two-pound weight. This resulted in recurring narcoleptic seizures, or sleeping spells, that plagued her the rest of her life.

In 1844, at about the age of 25, Harriet married John Tubman, a freeman. She gained permission to marry him from her owners and lived with him in his cabin, but she was required to continue working for her master. When Harriet told John of her dreams of one day gaining her freedom, he told her that she would never be free and, if she tried running away, he would turn her in. On one of her first return visits to Maryland, Harriet went to John's cabin in hopes of getting him to go north with her. She found that he had taken another wife.

In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, found work cooking, laundering and scrubbing, and saved money to finance rescue trips. She became involved with the city's large and active abolitionist (anti-slavery) organizations and with organizers of the Underground Railroad, a secret network through which slaves were helped in escaping from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. She soon returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger". Heavy rewards were offered for many of the people she helped bring away, but no one ever knew it was Harriet Tubman who was helping them. When a far-reaching United States Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, she helped guide fugitives further north into Canada, and helped newly-freed slaves find work.

When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid on the Combahee River, which liberated more than seven hundred slaves. After the war, she retired to the family home in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents.

She was active in the women's suffrage movement, believing the right to vote was vital to preserving their freedom, until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African-Americans she had helped open years earlier. Living past ninety, Harriet Tubman died in Auburn on March 10, 1913. She was given a full military funeral and was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. One year later, the city of Auburn commemorated her life with a memorial tablet at the front of the Cayuga County Courthouse. In 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt christened the Liberty Ship Harriet Tubman, and in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service honored her life with a postage stamp.

More Resources

PBS - Harriet Tubman

National Geographic - The Underground Railroad

Freedom Center - The Underground Railroad

Sources: Women in History, Wikipedia.org

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