Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and 122 co-sponsors have introduced legislation (H.R. 7062) to create a statue of the legendary hero of the Underground Railroad which will stand in the National Statuary Hall. Not only was Tubman known as “Moses” for guiding enslaved persons to freedom, but a campaigner for women’s equality and she held many other roles. During this Women’s History Month, the National Organization for Women endorsed this legislation and is also looking forward to seeing Tubman’s image on the twenty-dollar bill.
Harriet Tubman is one of the few African American women in history whose name has gained widespread recognition. This extraordinary individual is most well known for her involvement with the Underground Railroad, the network of people who harbored fugitive slaves on their dangerous journeys to freedom in the north. But there is much more to the story of her long life.
This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the famed abolitionist. Tubman was born into slavery in March of 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. At the time, birth certificates were very rare for enslaved individuals. A record shows that her slave master paid a midwife on March 15, 1822, for tending to Tubman’s mother, Harriet Greene Ross, leading historians to presume that she was born around this date.
Named Araminta “Minty’ Ross at birth, later renaming herself after her mother, Harriet led a truly remarkable journey through life. She is remembered not only for her efforts to free enslaved persons and later as a scout for the Union army during the Civil War, but also for her lifelong dedication to aiding those in need. In her various capacities, Tubman exhibited incredible compassion, bravery, and resilience.
A Hero of the Underground Railroad
In 1849, Harriet Tubman’s slave master passed away. Taking advantage of this brief opportunity, Tubman escaped to the North. Rather than safely enjoy this hard-earned freedom, Tubman vowed to rescue her family and friends who remained enslaved. Over the following decade, she made about thirteen trips back to southern Maryland, risking her life each time to bring others to freedom. In addition to the individuals she directly assisted, Tubman offered instructions to dozens of other enslaved persons. Following Tubman’s guidance, 70 persons and about an equal number of additional persons, using Tubman’s instructions were able to escape and find their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad to Canada.
During this period, Tubman gained immense respect, particularly among abolitionists. In fact, William Lloyd Garrison, a renowned advocate for ending slavery, gave her the nickname of “Moses.” In the following years, hundreds of slaves knew of and referred to Harriet Tubman by this honorable name.
Harriet Tubman’s skills of navigation are widely recognized for their ingenuity. Tubman primarily relied on the stellar constellations – and specifically, the North star – to guide her journey. She knew the landscape of Maryland, along what is the Delmarva Peninsula extremely well, and most often followed alongside rivers to keep her group on track for this 100-mile trek.
Tubman had several calculated tactics to ensure her trips were always successful. For instance, she would leave on Saturday nights, knowing that the paper – which contained notices on runaway slaves – would not be available to the public until Monday morning. Further, she carried sedatives to put babies to sleep in case their cries threatened the group’s safety. Tubman also carried a pistol with her, which she specifically used to threaten fugitives who expressed wanting to turn back, or claimed they were too tired to continue. If fugitives turned around, they would be questioned by authorities and tortured until they revealed information about the whereabouts of other runaway slaves, which would jeopardize the entire group’s chances of freedom. Tubman’s strategies were undoubtedly harsh, yet deeply effective. Tubman claimed that she “never lost a passenger” on any of her journeys. So successful was she in leading enslaved persons to their freedom that a $40,000 reward was offered for her capture.
Involvement in the Civil War
When the Civil War began, Tubman recognized the critical need for the Union’s victory and became significantly involved in war efforts. Using her skills from her time navigating the Underground Railroad, Tubman worked with the Union Army to help slaves to freedom in the North after they crossed into Union territory.
Tubman also served as a spy and a scout. On several occasions, she disguised herself as a field laborer and crossed over Confederate lines. Tubman took note of the locations of mines, the positioning of Confederate troops, and supply stocks. She relayed this information to Union authorities, and her insight was used to plan and execute military operations. Using the intelligence she had gathered, in 1863 Harriet Tubman helped lead the military raid of Combahee Ferry. This mission rescued upwards of 700 slaves from various plantations alongside the Combahee River.
Her Lesser-Known Disability
While many are familiar with Tubman’s accomplishments, few are aware that suffered with a fairly severe disability. Tubman spoke openly about having alarming “fits,” which would now likely be diagnosed as seizures. She also suffered from chronic pain, debilitating headaches, and bouts of unconsciousness. Many historians speculate that these issues were the result of a serious head injury Tubman had when she was a teenager. Tubman’s accomplishments are even more impressive when considering that she constantly suffered from these severe epileptic and narcoleptic symptoms.
Nursing and Medical Skills
In addition to working directly in military operations, Tubman also supported Union efforts from behind the scenes. For years, she worked as a nurse, helping Union soldiers recover from various injuries and ailments. Tubman was an expert in herbal medicine. In fact, her knowledge of roots and herbs was well-known; Tubman was even asked to travel to Florida to use her medicinal abilities to nurse troops back to health. Nevertheless, Tubman was never paid for her work as a nurse during the war. Furthermore, she was denied a pension as well, even after the U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, a close friend, petitioned on her behalf.
As evidenced by her impact in these various medicinal occupations, Harriet Tubman was deeply committed to aiding those in need. In 1908, Tubman went on to establish a charity home in upstate New York, known as the “Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes.” Tubman designed this home to be a safe haven for former slaves to access housing, healthcare, and a sense of community. Tubman herself resided in this home until her death in 1913. One of Tubman’s main motivations for creating this nursing home was to ensure that her humanitarian work and caretaking would extend beyond her lifetime.
Advocacy for Women’s Rights
Harriet Tubman was an avid supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage movement not only occurred in parallel but shared the same tenets of equality and freedom from oppression. Consequently, there was significant overlap in supporters of abolition and women’s rights. In fact, many famous feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott permitted their residencies and properties to be incorporated into the Underground Railroad. Throughout her time coordinating fugitives’ escape plans along the Underground Railroad, Tubman collaborated with all these feminist icons. Further, Tubman was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1896, Tubman delivered an inspiring speech and sang at the convention where this feminist organization was established.
The abolition movement and the women’s suffrage movement were closely interwoven, and Tubman was a true advocate for both. Sadly, Tubman passed away seven years before women succeeded in gaining the right to vote in 1919. Over the long course of the women’s suffrage campaign, White advocates refused to organize with Black suffrage activists in many cases, but Tubman spoke out often on behalf of suffrage for all women was honored by the major suffrage organizations.
Recognition of her Legacy
As one of the most influential activists in the history of the United States, Tubman deserves for her legacy to be carried on, and for her story to be told. In 2016, the Obama administration decided that Harriet Tubman would be placed on the twenty-dollar bill. While these efforts were stalled under Trump, the U.S. Treasury Department, with the support of the Biden Administration, has recently confirmed that they will carry through with this initiative. It is estimated that Tubman will appear on the twenty-dollar bill by 2030.
Hopefully, the Honoring Harriet Tubman Act will be passed by Congress. In honor of Tubman’s 200th birthday anniversary, an important salute to one of our most impactful heroes. In addition, other tributes are taking place, including The Tubman Bicentennial Project, a special collection of essays, poetry, artwork, and interactive pieces honoring Tubman in Ms. magazine –in print and online, Tubman 200 – Ms. Magazine (msmagazine.com), coordinated by Dr. Janell Hobson. Ms. also offers online, The Harriet Tubman Syllabus, An Exhaustive List of Works About and Inspire by Tubman, https://msmagazine.com/2022/03/10/harriet-tubman-syllabus/ The long overdue and well-deserved statue of Tubman in the U.S. Capitol and other such efforts serve to recognize Tubman’s lifetime of achievements and carry on her legacy.
Nora Weiss, Government Relations Intern