Are Black Women in History Overlooked? The Effort to Honor Harriet Tubman

By Jan Erickson, Director of Programs, NOW Foundation

Each February when Black History Month is observed, many feminists would agree that more attention should be paid to the intrepid black women who have made important contributions — not only for the benefit of their communities, but the nation as a whole. Foremost on our minds at the moment is abolitionist, Civil War spy, nurse, suffragist, humanitarian and Underground Railroad operator Harriet Ross Tubman (1822-1913). NOW activists and their allies are working to honor the life of this extraordinary woman, called the “Moses of her people,” but are encountering the usual pushback that often keeps women’s history — particularly that of African-American women — suppressed.

Tubman, born on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, was the fifth of nine children and a daughter of slaves. Tubman was hired out to temporary, often cruel masters, and she worked as a teen at back-breaking field labor. She was nearly killed by a blow to the head from an iron weight, thrown by an overseer as another slave was attempting to run away. Harriet suffered from seizures, headaches and sleeping spells for the rest of her long life.

In 1844, Harriet married a free black named John Tubman and took advantage of her master’s death in 1849 to seek freedom through the Underground Railroad, finding her way to Philadelphia and work as a domestic. Her savings funded freedom for the rest of her family, and she led many dangerous escape missions to Canada, risking her life each time in returning to Maryland.

Her later work was as an outspoken abolitionist, a dedicated nurse to black soldiers and newly liberated slaves at the time of the Civil War, and as the first woman to command a military raid to clear Confederate outposts in South Carolina, liberating 700 slaves. After the war, she resettled in Auburn, N.Y., on land purchased from Secretary of State William Seward and became a community activist, humanitarian and suffragist. She appeared at local and national suffrage conventions in the early 1900s. An inspiring account of her life can be found online.

To recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of Harriet Tubman, Maryland NOW is collaborating with the Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE) campaign, the Maryland section of the National Council of Negro Women, and other allies to push for passage of Maryland House Bill 455 and Senate Bill 535. Their goal: to place a statue of Tubman in the U.S. Capitol. Those of us who pass through Statuary Hall in the Capitol from time to time have not failed to notice that very few women are represented. Of the 100 statues present, only nine are of women leaders, and none are African-American. (A bust of Sojourner Truth was placed in Emancipation Hall of the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center after a dedicated effort by feminists to get her recognized.)

So Maryland NOW and its allies have joined with Del. Susan Lee (D), president of the Maryland General Assembly’s Women’s Caucus, and State Sen. Catherine Pugh (D), sponsors of their respective bills, to replace a statue of John Hanson with one of Tubman. Each state is allowed two statues of its famous “sons” in Statuary Hall. Hanson, a wealthy plantation owner, was the president of the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1782.

Predictably, some of the old guard politicians who run the Maryland General Assembly have spoken out in opposition. A Feb. 23 hearing in the Maryland state Senate did not result in a vote to send the bill to the Senate floor, but rather produced a series of delaying tactics. Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. (D) opposes the bill; however, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) supports it. A House of Delegates committee held a hearing the same day, but did not report out a bill.

According to Maryland NOW State President Linda Mahoney, who testified at the hearing, Sen. Miller “has been quoted as advocating ‘a Special category . . . in Statuary Hall for women and blacks,’ who were not considered when states first were invited to contribute statues, starting in 1864.” Mahoney pointedly responded in a written statement: “We are troubled by this suggestion. The suggestion that Congress should set up a ‘separate but unequal’ collection, which would honor women and minorities, smacks of the racism and sexism that the National Organization for Women has fought from its inception — almost a half century ago.”

If by some small miracle the Tubman statue bill is adopted and more than $250,000 in private funds are found, the Moses of her people will become the first African-American woman in Statuary Hall. But, again, getting there will take an all-out organizing effort on the part of NOW activists and their allies.

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