Harriet Tubman is having a moment. Right now she is the “it” girl of history.
No longer relegated to the pages of schoolbooks during Black History Month, the freedom-fighting, self-liberating she-warrior and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad is getting the recognition she so richly deserves.
Last year the Treasury Department announced that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill (beating out other important female figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks in a popular vote), and this year alone, tributes to Tubman are popping up everywhere.
- This weekend marks the opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Dorchester, Md., her birthplace and the place from which she escaped (March 10 is officially Harriet Tubman Day to honor the anniversary of her death in 1913). The $22 million center will feature exhibits, a research library and workshops where visitors can fully immerse themselves in the life and times of Tubman.
- In the new season of WGN America’s Underground, actress Aisha Hinds plays Tubman as members of the Macon 7 join her in shepherding fleeing slaves to freedom.
- Viola Davis is set to play her in an upcoming HBO biopic, and in February, Broadway star Cynthia Erivo was tapped to portray her in another film.
- A newly discovered photo of Tubman will go up for auction March 30.
This isn’t the first time Tubman has been showered with attention. During her time, stories of her exploits were widely told in anti-slavery newspapers, where she earned the nickname the “Moses of Her People.” Biographies detailed her legendary feats (sometimes unnecessarily exaggerating them), which elevated her to a larger-than-life, mythical figure.
Historian Kate Clifford Larson wrote 2004’s Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero—one of the more definitive and well-respected biographies about the famous freedom fighter—largely to dispel many of the myths about Tubman that have been passed down through the generations.
Still, while reading Larson’s more humanizing and accurate account of Tubman’s life, I coudn’t help being in awe of all the amazing things she did while overcoming the horrors of slavery:
The woman we know as Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in late February or March 1822 in Dorchester County, Md. She was the fifth of nine children born to Ben Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green. She was called “Minty” throughout her early life, but the delicate-sounding handle failed to capture the brutal conditions she suffered as a child. As early as age 6 or 7, she was rented out by her owner, who sent her to other plantations, separating her for long periods of times from her loved ones.
She worked as a farmhand, checking muskrat traps during winter in freezing waters. She worked as a house servant and was routinely beaten by one of the mistresses who rented her because Harriet didn’t dust a room properly. She bore the welts and scars on her back and neck, but she proudly proclaimed that the beatings never made her “hollah,” a display of toughness that would aid her during her freedom-fighting journey. Larson recalls that Tubman was so tough that when she suffered from a “violent toothache,” she dealt with it by knocking the tooth out with a rock.
Probably the most well-known story in Tubman’s biography is that she suffered from fainting spells and hallucinations after she was struck in the head by a piece of iron. The story behind her getting struck in the head is pretty heroic: A slave who had left work without permission was being chased by an overseer. The slave ran into a dry goods store, where he encountered a teenage Harriet shopping with a plantation cook. When the overseer found the slave, he ordered Harriet to help him tie down the fugitive, but she refused. When the slave broke free, the exasperated overseer grabbed a 2-pound iron weight and threw it at the fleeing slave but hit Harriet instead.
Harriet, who was dazed and bloodied, was taken back to the plantation but received no medical attention; she was back in the field a few days later. For the rest of her life, she would suffer blackouts and, later, seizures. She would also experience vivid dreams and visions, which Tubman attributed to God, whom she felt was guiding her on the road to freedom.
3. After she escaped from slavery, she went back about 13 more times to free her family and other slaves.
After escaping slavery in 1849, Tubman, over the next 11 years, would go back to Maryland to retrieve her brothers and other family members along with other enslaved people. All told, she likely led about 70 to 80 people personally to freedom and helped guide 50 or 60 more by giving them detailed directions when she couldn’t lead them herself. (One of the early biographies about her life exaggerated the number of slaves Tubman freed, putting it in the hundreds.)
Larson points out that African Americans fleeing slavery from Maryland were not uncommon, given that the state bordered the slavery-free state of Pennsylvania. What made Tubman unique, and ultimately a legend, was that she kept going back, risking capture and re-enslavement—or, worse, death by lynching—to retrieve her loved ones and help others.
In order to return to Maryland time and time again, Tubman would often use disguises, including dressing up like an elderly man or woman. And when disguises didn’t work, Tubman used clever deception. While fleeing with a group of slaves near a bridge in Delaware, Tubman encountered a group of Irish laborers.
Rather than run with such a large group, Tubman boldly walked up to the men and started chatting them up … about Christmas. When they got curious about what she, a lone black woman, was doing on the bridge, she changed the subject to marriage, suggesting that since she had already married a black man, she was now on the lookout for a white husband. Apparently, this discussion about mixing the races through marriage—clearly a taboo topic at the time—was so distracting, the slaves were able to pass the bridge to safety.
5. When Congress passed a more restrictive Fugitive Slave Act, she redirected the Underground Railroad to Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required lawmen in free, Northern states to aid their Southern brethren in the capture of runaway slaves, making cities like Philadelphia—where Tubman usually settled between trips back to Maryland—unsafe for any former slave to live. Didn’t matter—by 1851, Tubman was ferrying folks to our neighbors to the north.
Tubman came to the attention of Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, who thought her stealth and leadership skills would be useful to the Union Army. On June 1, 1863, Tubman led a spy mission to help identify Confederate resources and locate mines that targeted Union boats. The information was used in a raid on a rebel plantation that helped free slaves and helped the Union gain ground. In addition to working as a spy, she also served as a scout, a nurse and a cook. Unfortunately, she would spend the rest of her life fighting for the Union pension she felt she deserved.
After the war, Tubman was on a train headed home to New York from Philadelphia. When a conductor ordered her to the smoking car, she refused. When he tried to physically remove her, he was no match for her strength. When he called two other men to help, she held on for dear life to parts of the train compartment as the men tried to pry her fingers loose. Eventually they twisted her arm and broke it. When she was tossed into the smoking car, she called the conductor a “copperhead scoundrel” and asked how dare he call her “colored”—she preferred to be called black or Negro because “she was as proud of being a black woman as he was of being white.”
Tubman attempted to sue the railroad company, with little result, but the story of her mistreatment became widely known and inspired African-American suffragist and lecturer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—who’d suffered similar indignities while traveling by train—to call on the white suffragists to acknowledge that the struggles of black women were on a different level of difficult. Harper said:
You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. Talk of giving women the ballot box? … While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.
In her remaining days, Tubman became a key figure and speaker in the suffragette movement. Until her dying breath, she never stopped fighting for equal rights for blacks and women.