When you think of great women the great conductor has to be at the top or the list. Early in the life of Harriet Tubman, she suffered a traumatic head wound when she was hit by a heavy metal weight thrown by an irate overseer, intending to hit another slave. It struck Tubman instead, which she said “broke my skull.” She later explained her belief that her hair, which “had never been combed and stood out like a bushel basket” might have saved her life.
Bleeding and unconscious, Tubman was returned to her owner’s house where she remained without medical care for two days at which time she was immediately sent back into the fields to work. The injury caused disabling seizures, headaches, powerful visionary and dream activity, and spells of hypersomnia which occurred throughout her entire life.
In 1849, after escaping to Philadelphia she immediately returned to Maryland to rescue the rest of 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, Moses never lost a passenger.
“There was one of two things I had a right to,” she explained later, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” Slaveholders in the region never knew that “Minty,” the petite, five-foot-tall, disabled slave who had run away years before and never come back, was behind so many slave escapes in their community.
She also carried a revolver and was not afraid to use it. Once a slave agreed to join her expedition there was no turning back – and she threatened to shoot anyone who tried to return. Tubman told the tale of one voyage with a group of fugitive slaves, when morale sank and one man insisted he was going to go back to the plantation. She pointed the gun at his head and said: “You go on or die.”
One of her last missions into Maryland was to retrieve her aging parents. Her father, Ben, had purchased Rit, her mother, in 1855 from Eliza Brodess for twenty dollars. But even when they were both free, the area became hostile to their presence. Two years later, Tubman received word that her father had harbored a group of eight escaped slaves and was at risk of arrest. She traveled to the Eastern Shore and led them north into Canada.
In fact, by the late 1850’s they began to suspect the white abolitionist John Brown was secretly enticing their slaves away from the Eastern Shore before his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Tubman was introduced to the insurgent John Brown who advocated the use of violence to destroy slavery. Although she never advocated violence against whites, she agreed with his course of direct action and supported his goals.
Like Tubman, he spoke of being called by God, and trusted the divine to protect him from the wrath of slaveholders. She claimed to have had a prophetic vision of meeting Brown before their encounter. Tubman did help Brown as he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders and referred to her as “General Tubman.”
Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Unlike other abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who did not endorse his tactics, Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves, and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the south. He asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in Canada who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did.
Tubman was busy during this time, giving talks to abolitionist audiences and tending to her relatives causing her to be unaware of the actual attack. So in the autumn of 1859, as Brown and his men prepared to launch the attack on Harpers Ferry, Tubman was not present. The raid failed; Brown was convicted of treason and hanged in December. His actions were seen by abolitionists as a symbol of proud resistance, carried out by a noble martyr. Tubman herself was effusive with praise. She later told a friend: “He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.”
She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. She guided the raid on the Combahee River, liberating more than seven hundred slaves. In addition, during the war she worked as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. 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 woman’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African-Americans she had helped open years earlier.
Tubman returned to Auburn at the end of the war. During a train ride to New York, the conductor told her to move into the smoking car. She refused, explaining her government service. He cursed at her and grabbed her, but she resisted and he summoned two other passengers for help. While she clutched at the railing, they muscled her away, breaking her arm in the process. They threw her into the smoking car, causing more injuries. As these events transpired, other white passengers cursed Tubman and shouted for the conductor to kick her off the train.
Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and her difficulties in obtaining a government pension were especially taxing for her. Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, tending to her family and other people in need. She worked various jobs to support her elderly parents, and took in boarders to help pay the bills. Tubman’s friends and supporters from the days of abolition, meanwhile, raised funds to relieve her poverty.
As Tubman aged, the sleeping spells and suffering from her childhood head trauma continued to plague her. By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as “ill and penniless,” prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…