The O.G. Files ‘Black History Month’ Edition: Harriet Tubman

Welcome the Evolving Man Project’s “Black History Month” edition of the O. G. profiles. The O.G. profiles will highlight women from diverse backgrounds and how they embody the values of what it means to be an evolved person. While uplifting their contributions to making a fairer and more just society. Today we will profile Harriet Tubman

Born Araminta Ross, March 1822– March 10, 1913. Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage.

A young Harriet Tubman (Age 43 – 46)

Harriet Tubman was born around 1820 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents, Harriet (“Rit”) Green and Benjamin Ross, named her Araminta Ross and called her “Minty.” Rit worked as a cook in the plantation’s “big house,” and Benjamin was a timber worker. Araminta later changed her first name to Harriet in honor of her mother. Harriet had eight brothers and sisters, but the realities of slavery eventually forced many of them apart, despite Rit’s attempts to keep the family together. When Harriet was five years old, she was rented out as a nursemaid. She was whipped when the baby cried, leaving her with permanent emotional and physical scars.

When she was about 12 years old, she reportedly refused to help an overseer punish another enslaved person. She suffered a severe head injury when he threw an iron weight that accidentally struck her; she subsequently suffered seizures throughout her life. In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free Black man, and changed her last name from Ross to Tubman. The marriage was not good, and the knowledge that two of her brothers—Ben and Henry—were about to be sold provoked Harriet to plan an escape.

Contrary to legend, Tubman did not create the Underground Railroad; it was established in the late eighteenth century by black and white abolitionists. Tubman likely benefitted from this network of escape routes and safe houses in 1849, when she and two brothers escaped north. Her husband, John Tubman refused to join her, and by 1851 he had married another free black woman. Tubman returned to the South several times and helped dozens of people escape. Her success led enslavers to post a $40,000 reward for her capture or death.

In late 1851, Tubman returned to Dorchester County for the first time since her escape, this time to find her husband, John. She saved money from various jobs, purchased a suit for him, and made her way south. Meanwhile, John had married another woman named Caroline. Tubman sent word that he should join her, but he insisted that he was happy where he was. Tubman at first prepared to storm their house and make a scene but then decided he was not worth the trouble. She suppressed her anger and found some enslaved people who wanted to escape and led them to Philadelphia. John and Caroline raised a family together until he was killed 16 years later in a roadside argument with a white man named Robert Vincent.

Because the Fugitive Slave Law had made the northern United States a more dangerous place for escaped enslaved people to remain, many escaped slaves began migrating to Southern Ontario. In December 1851, Tubman guided an unidentified group of 11 fugitives, possibly including the Bowleys and several others she had helped rescue earlier, northward. There is evidence to suggest that Tubman and her group stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. In his third autobiography, Douglass wrote: “On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada.” 

Tubman’s dangerous work required tremendous ingenuity; she usually worked during winter months to minimize the group’s likelihood of being seen. One admirer of Tubman said: “She always came in the winter, when the nights are long and dark, and people who have homes stay in them.” Once she had contacted escaping slaves, they left town on Saturday evenings since newspapers would not print runaway notices until Monday morning.

Her journeys into the land of slavery put her at tremendous risk. She used a variety of subterfuges to avoid detection. Tubman once disguised herself with a bonnet and carried two live chickens to give the appearance of running errands. Suddenly, she found herself walking toward a former owner in Dorchester County. She yanked the strings holding the birds’ legs, and their agitation allowed her to avoid eye contact. Later she recognized a fellow train passenger as another former master; she snatched a nearby newspaper and pretended to read. Tubman was known to be illiterate, and the man ignored her.

While being interviewed by author Wilbur Siebert in 1897, Tubman named some of the people who helped her and places she stayed along the Underground Railroad. She remained with Sam Green, a free black minister living in East New Market, Maryland; she hid near Poplar Neck’s home. She would travel from there northeast to Sandtown and Willow Grove, Delaware, and the Camden area. Free black agents, William and Nat Brinkley and Abraham Gibbs, guided her north past Dover, Smyrna, and Blackbird, where other agents would take her across the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to New Castle and Wilmington. In Wilmington, Quaker Thomas Garrett would secure transportation to William Still’s office or the homes of other Underground Railroad operators in the greater Philadelphia area. Still is credited with aiding hundreds of freedom seekers to escape to safer places in New York, New England, and present-day Southern Ontario.

Tubman’s religious faith was another vital resource as she repeatedly ventured into Maryland. The visions from her childhood head injury continued, and she saw them as divine premonitions. She spoke of “consulting with God” and trusted that He would keep her safe. Thomas Garrett once said of her, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul.” Her faith in the divine also provided immediate assistance. She used spirituals as coded messages, warning fellow travelers of danger or to signal a clear path. She sang versions of “Go Down Moses” and changed the lyrics to indicate that it was either safe or too dangerous to proceed. As she led fugitives across the border, she would call out, “Glory to God and Jesus, too. One more soul is safe!” She carried a revolver and was not afraid to use it. The gun afforded some protection from the ever-present slave catchers and their dogs. She also purportedly threatened to shoot any escaped slave who tried to turn back on the journey since that would endanger the safety of the remaining group. Tubman told the tale of one man who insisted he would go back to the plantation when morale got low among a group of fugitive slaves. She pointed the gun at his head and said, “You go on or die.” Several days later, he was with the group as they entered Canada.

Tubman was never caught and never lost a “passenger.” She participated in other antislavery efforts, including supporting John Brown in his failed 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry, Virginia arsenal. In 1861, Harriet found new ways to fight slavery when the Civil War broke out. She was recruited to assist fugitive enslaved people at Fort Monroe and worked as a nurse, cook, and laundress. Harriet used her knowledge of herbal medicines to help treat sick soldiers and fugitive enslaved people.

In 1863, Harriet became head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army. She provided crucial intelligence to Union commanders about Confederate Army supply routes and troops. She helped liberate enslaved people to form Black Union regiments. Though just over five feet tall, she was a force to be reckoned with. However, the government took over three decades to recognize her military contributions and award her financially.

Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn, tending to her family and other people in need. She worked various jobs to support her elderly parents and took in boarders to help pay the bills. One of the people Tubman took in was a 5-foot-11-inch-tall farmer named Nelson Charles Davis. Born in North Carolina, he had served as a private in the 8th United States Colored Infantry Regiment from September 1863 to November 1865. He began working in Auburn as a bricklayer, and they soon fell in love. Though he was 22 years younger than she was, on March 18, 1869, they were married at the Central Presbyterian Church. They adopted a baby girl named Gertie in 1874 and lived together as a family; Nelson died on October 14, 1888, of tuberculosis.

After an extensive campaign for a military pension, she was finally awarded $8 per month in 1895 as Davis’s widow (he died in 1888) and $20 in 1899 for her service. In 1896, she established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on land near her home. Tubman died in 1913 and was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

Harriet Tubman lived a remarkable and, at times, heartbreaking life. She used her faith and her pistol to lead masses of enslaved people to freedom, she served as a Civil War spy and commanded forces, nursed wounded soldiers and former slaves back to health, fought for women’s rights, and escaped to freedom. Over a century-plus later, Harriet Tubman still captures the imaginations of freedom fighters, social justice advocates, and the general public the world over. Countless books, documentaries, and films have been made about her life and times. She was uncompromising in her quest for freedom for everyone. Here is Harriet Tubman in her own words:  

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”

Harriet Tubman

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