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Harriet Tubman

FROM C. Peter Ripley et al., eds., The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. 5, The United States, 1859-1865 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 222-3. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


Harriet Tubman (1821-1913), a legendary figure in the underground railroad, was born to slave parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene near Cambridge on Maryland's eastern shore. Although called Araminta as a child, she later chose her mother's name. Laboring as a field slave through her teenage years, she developed the muscular build, physical endurance, and deep religious faith that became her trademarks. An accident left her prone to chronic narcoleptic seizures for the remainder of her life. When she escaped from slavery in 1848, her free black husband of four years, John Tubman, stayed in Maryland and took another wife. Having reached freedom, Harriet resolved to help other slaves do the same. By working as a cook, laundress, and scrubwoman in Philadelphia and Cape May, New Jersey, she financed the first of her famous expeditions into the South—a journey to Baltimore to rescue her sister and two children. She made at least nine trips during the 1850s to lead some 180 slaves to freedom—most were relatives and friends from plantations near Cambridge. Tubman carefully planned each escape and boasted of having never lost a "passenger." These trips remain shrouded in mystery because of Tubman's illiteracy and the secret nature of underground railroad activity. But her work so alarmed Maryland planters that they announced a $40,000 reward for her capture.

As sectional controversy increased, Tubman redirected her effors, viewing the conflict as the climax of the struggle for freedom. She met with John Brown a half dozen times during 1858-59 and raised money for his Harpers Ferry raid. After going to Beaufort, South Carolina, in May 1862, she spent three years working as a nurse and cook among the contrabands there. She also became a scout and spy for the Second South Carolina Volunteers. Able to travel without suspicion in rebel territory, she located cotton storehouses, ammunition depots, and slaves awaiting liberation and informed Union military officials. During the latter months of the Civil War, Tubman was employed in freedmen's hospitals in Virginia

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York, where she had settled with her parents in 1858. She raised money for freedmen's schools, collected clothing for destitute children, and aided the sick and disabled. In 1903 she turned her house into the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent People. She also lectured throughout the East, worked with black women's groups and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, advocated women's suffrage, and served as a delegate to the first annual convention of the National Association of Colored Women (1896). Although widely celebrated in her later years, Tubman lived in meager personal circumstances. White friends and benefactors attempted to provide for her welfare by financing the publication of two biographies by Auburn teacher Sarah H. Bradford—Scenes in the Life Of Harriet Tubman (1868) and Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886). They also tried to secure her a government pension; she finally received one in 1890 as the widow of Nelson Davis, a war verteran who in 1869 became her second husband. Benjamin Quarles, "Harriet Tubman's Unlikely Leadership," in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Leon Litwack and August Meier (Urbana, Ill., 1988), 43-57; NAW [Edward T. James, ed., Notable American Women (Cambridge, Mass., 1971)], 3:481-83; Sterling, We Are Your Sisters 67, 222-23, 258-61, 397-99, 411; NASS [National Anti-Slavery Standard, 18 July 1863; WAA [Weekly Anglo-African], 29 August 1863.

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