Harriet Tubman, in my opinion, was the most courageous woman who ever lived, and my personal hero. Hidden in the tiny “dash” on her marker is her life’s work of being the great conductor of the Underground Railroad, a scout, spy, and nurse during the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross sometimes referred to as “Moses.” The date of her actual birth is suspect because as a slave accurate birth records were not kept. Therefore, no one can say for sure as to the actual date. She always proclaimed her birth as 1825 but most historians believe she was born around 1820 or 1821.
After escaping from the slavery into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue over seventy slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She once remarked that she could have saved a lot more if they had only known they were slaves. Her courage was that of unimaginable proportion because death was the penalty for such work.
Early in her life, she was told that she was of Ashanti lineage from what is now Ghana where her grandmother was captured. Her mother, Rit, struggled to keep their family together as slavery tried to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters separating them from the family forever.
Once a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son Moses; she hid him for a month, aided by other slaves and free blacks in the community. At one point she even confronted her owner about the sale. Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child where Rit told them: “You are after my son, but the first man that comes into my house I will split his head open.” Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale.
Because Tubman’s mother was assigned to “the big house” and had scarce time for her own family, as a child Tubman took care of a younger brother and a baby. At the age of five or six, she was hired out to a woman named “Miss Susan” as a nursemaid. Tubman was ordered to keep watch on her baby as it slept. When it woke or cried, Tubman was whipped.
She told of a particular day when she was lashed five times before breakfast. She carried these scars for the rest of her life. Threatened later for stealing a lump of sugar, Tubman hid in a neighbor’s pig sty for five days, where she fought with the animals for scraps of food. Starving, she returned to Miss Susan’s house and received a heavy beating.
Tubman was beaten and whipped regularly by her various masters to whom she had been hired out. She learned to protect herself from such abuse by wrapping herself in layers of clothing but cried out as if she was not protected. Tubman also worked as a child for a planter where her job was to go into nearby marshes to check the muskrat traps.
Even after contracting the measles, she was sent into waist high cold water. She became very ill and was sent back to her master. Her mother nursed her back to health, whereupon she was immediately hired out again to various farms. As she grew older and stronger, she was assigned to grueling field and forest work: driving oxen, plowing, and hauling logs.
Tubman’s father Ben was released from slavery at the age of forty-five, as stipulated in a former owner’s will, though his real age was closer to fifty-five. He continued working as a timber estimator and foreman for the Thompson family, who had owned him as a slave.
Several years later, Tubman contacted a white attorney and paid him five dollars to investigate her mother’s legal status. The lawyer discovered that a former owner had issued instructions that Rit, like her husband, would be manumitted at the age of forty-five. The record showed that a similar provision would apply to Rit’s children and that any children born after she reached forty-five years of age were legally free, but her owners ignored this stipulation.
Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Although little is known about him or their time together, the union was complicated due to her slave status. Since the mother’s status dictated that of her children, any children born to Harriet and John would be enslaved. As a result of her master’s death the likelihood that Tubman would be sold increased and the family would be broken apart as their master’s widow would sell the family’s slaves. Tubman refused to wait for her owner’s family to decide her fate, despite her husband John’s efforts to dissuade her.
She escaped to Philadelphia and returned to Maryland to find her husband. However, John had married another woman named Caroline. Tubman sent word that he should join her, but he insisted that he was happy where he was. Tubman at first prepared to storm their house and make a scene but decided he was not worth the trouble. Suppressing her anger, she found some slaves who wanted to escape and led them to Philadelphia. John and Caroline raised a family together until he was killed sixteen years later in a roadside argument with a white man.
It is said, that she freed hundreds but when asked she said I could have saved many more if they only knew they were slaves. I don’t know what it says on her final marker but it should contain a simple inscription that says – “Servant of God”. In my opinion, she was the most significant black woman in our history! And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…