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Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

Strong as a man, brave as a lion, cunning as fox,” Harriet Tubman was undoubtedly one of the greatest Underground Railroad conductors of her time. The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad, but a network of concerned people across the country who devised an escape rout from state to state, promoting freedom for slaves. Harriet, one of 10 or 11 children, was born in 1920, in Maryland, to Benjamin and Harriet Ross. During the eight years she conducted the Underground Railroad, she made 19 perilous trips in the deep South and guided over 300 slaves to a new and glorious life of freedom. She was greatly respected in abolitionist circles in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Liberia. Tubman received financial aid from Great Britain and Canada. Queen Victoria of England sent her expensive gifts and a personal invitation to visit Britain.

From an early age, Harriet was brutalized and compelled to do hard labor by her masters. All of this harsh treatment toughened her body and gave her unrelenting stamina which served her well in later years. When she was 13, her master struck her with a two-pound weight and fractured her skull. For the rest of her life, she suffered from attacks of dizziness and uncontrollable sleeping spells from which she could not easily be awakened.

In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a freed man. Several years later, her master died and there was talk of his slaves being sold out of the state. Apprehensive of her fate, Harriet decided to escape. Upon hearing her plan, her husband ridiculed her and refused to leave with her. Harriet responded by saying, “There’s two things I’ve a right to do: death or liberty.” One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive.”  Faithful to her promise, she made her escape through the swamps with two brothers who later were overcome with fear and turned back, leaving her to go it alone. No one ever turned back on her again. She carried a rifle for protection and also to instill courage and motivation in the spirits of her sometime-faltering charges who felt they couldn’t go on. At such times, she would point her gun and quietly command, “You’ll be free, or you will die.” She is noted for saying, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

It was dangerous for anyone to help “property” escape – even more so for Harriet, a slave herself. Having faith in God and an unfailing desire to help others, she always managed to elude her would-be captors. It is reported that at one time there was a$40,000 reward for her capture. Harriet became quite crafty at using disguises and by sending cryptic messages to signal her coming. Although she rescued most of her family, a most memorable occasion for her was when she liberated her aged parents.

During the Civil War, Harriet served the Union Army as a scout, a spy, and a nurse. In 1863, she led the Union Army on a raid which resulted in the freedom of over 750 slaves. After the war, she settled in Auburn, New York. She applied for a military pension but was forced to live in poverty for 30 years before it was granted. In 1897, Congress passed a private bill granted her $20 a month. She used the pension to establish the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent Aged Negroes. Harriet Ross Tubman lived to be 93 years old. She was buried in Ohio with military honors in March, 1913. On June 12, 1914, in Auburn, New York, flags flew at half-mast. Whites and Blacks gathered together by the thousands to pay tribute to the great contribution she made to her country and her people.

Source: An Empak “Black History” Publication Series. A Salute to Historic Black Women. Vol. I
Copyright© 1984 Empak Publishing Company, Div. of Empak Enterprises, Inc.