Sandra Braine and Henry Oaks are correct [STREETBEAT, Feb. 3]. Harriet Tubman has been one of those historical figures about whom everyone knows all too little.
Tubman, a woman of small stature who, after escaping from bondage, assisted other men, women and children in fleeing to the northern United States and Canada. But many people, even professional historians, have uncovered little more than that about her life. Only one previous full-length adult biography exists, amid numerous but limited accounts written for children.
Fortunately this year, three new biographies of Tubman are helping to fill this void. Tubman well deserves such attention. Historian Catherine Clinton’s book, Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom (2004), provides an informed account of Tubman’s life.
Clinton states that she was born Araminta Ross in Maryland sometime between 1820 and 1825, the third generation of enslaved people in her family. She was one of 11 children of Benjamin and Harriet Ross.
Maryland sat at the crossroads of slavery and freedom, and young Araminta probably grew up hearing stories not only of those who “slipped” away in the night to find freedom in the north, but also stories of those such as Nat Turner who sought the violent overthrow of the slave system.
Perhaps those stories inspired her, at 14, to assist another slave in eluding their masters. Stepping between man and master, Araminta was struck in the head by a lead weight and lay semi-conscious for weeks. For the rest of her life, she had a tendency to lapse unexpectedly into unconsciousness, even a few times when she was leading others out of slavery. Medically, what Tubman had was called “recurring narcoleptic seizures.”
Around 1844, Araminta married John Tubman, a free black man. But even marriage could not completely assuage the difficulties of slavery for her. Tubman had witnessed her sister being sold and taken south, lived through the deaths of two masters, and with the family separations that resulted from such events.
In 1849, Clinton writes, following “a lengthy prayer vigil,” Araminta Tubman determined to leave Maryland for freedom in the north. Her husband did not accompany her. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Araminta changed her name to Harriet, perhaps in honor of her long ago sold sister and her mother, who also carried that name. Tubman’s resolution to leave was a fulfillment of her belief that “there was one of two things I had a right to?”liberty or death.” She decided, “If I could not have one, I would have the other.”
But to leave behind family and friends with the possibility that she would never see them again was no easy task. Thus, many of her trips south initially involved the rescue of family members. On one trip back to Maryland in the 1850s, she learned that John Tubman had re-married. Harriet married a much younger Civil War veteran, Charles Nelson Davis, in 1869.
The author estimates that Tubman brought as many as 300 blacks to the north and Canada. Underground railroad operators did not keep records of their activities because of the fugitive slave law of 1850. The exact number of trips Tubman made is unknown, but she claimed 20.
Harriet Tubman’s record of neither being caught nor losing any of her “cargo” indicates a steely resolve, shrewdness and skill forged by her hatred of slavery. She brought those skills into play as the Civil War engulfed the nation. Tubman quickly signed up to serve as a nurse for the Union Army stationed in the Carolinas and Florida, and later became a scout.
She received her greatest acclaim as the spy who provided the information that would lead to the 1863 Combahee River raid, in which 750 slaves from South Carolina’s wealthiest plantations were spirited unto Union gunboats, leaving the estates “bereft and humiliated.” Her exploits made her a beloved household name in the north and hated in the south, with a $40,000 pricetag on her head?”dead or alive.
Tubman carried a pistol for two reasons?”protection and threatening to shoot “Uncle Tom slaves” who wanted to return to their masters, after starting the journey to freedom.
Four years after the Civil War, Tubman recounted her life story to her friend, Sarah E. Bradford, and received a small stipend from the sale of the resulting biography, Scenes In The Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). But for 30 years, Tubman had to fight the U.S. government, to receive a pension for her military services and eventually won a $20 per month stipend. She purchased a home in Auburn, N.Y., and established a permanent home for aged ex-slaves who could no longer perform strenuous jobs. It was called the Harriet Tubman Home for Impoverished Blacks. She died the same year Rosa Parks was born?”1913.
On May 30, 1974, the Department of the Interior declared the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People a national historic landmark.
Although illiterate, Tubman gave speeches and personal testimony and remained politically active in the emerging women’s rights movement in her later years.