By Nicolle S. A. Lyon
By the time President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 to end slavery (by executive order) Harriet Tubman was approximately forty-three and had already helped three hundred slaves gain their freedom. Therefore, it is only fitting that we celebrate both the 150th anniversary of the signing of the proclamation and the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death in the same year.
Born into slavery to Ben Ross and Harriet (Rit) Greene in 1820s Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Harriet Ross was one of nine children the couple had between 1808 and 1832. Her father was owned by Anthony Thompson, and her mother by Mary Pattison Brodess, whose son (Edward) sold several of Harriet’s younger sibling. Thompson and Brodess, both widowed, eventually married.
Harriet began work as a house servant around age five. Repeatedly hired out as a babysitter, she was forced to stay up all night to keep the baby from crying, and was beaten when she fell asleep. Seven years later, Harriet was sent to the fields. In her early teens, while attempting to protect another field slave from an angry overseer, Harriet suffered an injury from which she never fully recovered. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the other field slave hitting her in the head instead as she blocked the door. For the rest of her life, Harriet suffered blackouts.
Although she married John Tubman (a free man) around age twenty-five, Harriet feared being sold south. Following an illness and the death of her owner, Harriet decided to make her escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. She initially left with two of her brothers, Ben and Henry however, they became scared and returned to the plantation. So, Harriet made the ninety mile trip alone with assistant from an Abolitionist neighbor and other safe stations.
Once in Philadelphia, Harriet was introduced to William Still (1821 – 1902). Often referred to as the Father of the Underground Railroad, Still (one of the busiest station masters) helped over eight hundred slaves to freedom. He and the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society taught Harriet the inner workings of the Underground Railroad.
Eventually, Harriet started thinking about the family she left behind. Upon learned that her niece Kessiah and her two daughters were going to be sold, Harriet returned to Maryland in December 1850. Although Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, made the winning bid, Harriet helped the entire family escape. Returning to Maryland, Harriet led family members (including siblings and parents) as well as other slaves north. Refusing to make the journey, Harriet’s husband John chose to remain with his new wife in Maryland.
About a year after she first escaped, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed on September 18th as part of the Compromise of 1850. Now, all runaway slaves would be subject to capture and returned to their owners. Runaway slaves were no longer safe in free states. Harriet would be forced to take ‘her passengers’ to Canada in the future.
Over the next ten years, Harriet made at least nineteen trips into the South, using the Underground Railroad (a network of over 3,000 homes and other stations that helped escaping slaves travel to free northern states and to Canada) escorting hundreds of men and women to freedom. Making her journeys even riskier, a reward of $40,000 was placed on Harriet (dead or alive). Refusing to be deterred, Harriet Tubman became the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, earning the nickname Moses.
To ensure no runaway attempted to return to slavery, Harriet carried a gun. Fortunately, she never had to use it. As she once pointed out to Frederick Douglass (a former slave who bought his freedom) “I Never lost a single passenger.” It is believed that Harriet first met Frederick Douglass in 1851. While guiding a group to freedom, they reportedly had a stopover at his house.
Harriet also became a leader in the Abolitionist movement. In 1858 she assisted John Brown as he planned an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Her knowledge of the east coast Underground network was invaluable. Although Brown was eventually captured and hanged, he became one of the biggest symbols of anti-slavery.
When the Civil War (1861 – 1865) broke out, Harriet again found a way to have an impact, serving as an armed scout and a spy for the Union Army. As the first woman to lead an armed expedition, Harriet guided the Combahee River Raid, liberating 700 slaves in South Carolina.
Harriet Tubman (who had one daughter, Gertie Davis) spent her later years in Auburn, New York. As she aged, the injury she suffered as a teen became more disruptive forcing Harriet to undergo brain surgery at Boston’s General Hospital to alleviate the pain. She succumbed to pneumonia on March 10, 1913.