It was fall 1849, and Araminta Harriet Tubman, a slave, was on the run.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other,” Tubman later said of her decision to escape slavery.
The sickly woman, prone to epileptic seizures, was all alone—her husband, a free man, didn’t want to leave the life he had established in Dorchester County, Md.; her brothers, Harry and Ben, who had initially escaped with her, had changed their minds and returned to the plantation. But even with a $300 bounty on her head, Tubman soldiered on, using the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to travel 90 miles to Philadelphia.
“The thirst for freedom trumped everything,” said biographer and historian Kate C. Larson of Tubman’s impetus, “and the fear of being sold was so profound that she decided she had to take the risk and leave her family and everything she knew.”
When she finally set foot in the free state of Pennsylvania, Tubman experienced an overwhelming feeling of relief and wonderment. She later recalled: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
But Tubman’s happiness was limited because everybody she loved was back in Maryland.
Born Araminta Ross in either February or March 1822, Tubman was the fifth of nine children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross.
Ross was “owned” by Anthony Thompson, on whose plantation Tubman was born and spent a relatively stable life with her parents and siblings until her mother’s “owner” and Thompson’s stepson Edward Broadus came of age.
Within two years, Broadus had uprooted “Rit” and her children to Bucktown, where Tubman’s harrowing childhood commenced. Broadus sold three of her sisters to distant plantations, fracturing the close-knit family. He also regularly hired out Tubman and some of her siblings to neighboring farms, where she was beaten and starved and became a sickly child who often had to be returned to her mother to be nursed back to health.
“She had a lonely and difficult childhood,” said Larson, author of the biography Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. “[And] she was physically abused and bore the scars for the rest of her life.”
The most severe injury occurred when she was 13 or 14. As Larson describes the incident, Tubman and the plantation cook were approaching a dry goods store in Bucktown when a slave boy escaping from his work assignment in the fields ran past them into the store. An overseer in hot pursuit, commanded the bondwoman to block the door to prevent the boy’s escape.
She refused and the overseer threw a 2-pound weight that struck her head with such force that pieces of her headscarf became embedded in her skull. Tubman lost consciousness, was neglected and later forced to work with the untreated injury.
For the rest of her life she suffered from epilepsy, enduring seizures, severe headaches, narcoleptic episodes and intense dream states. But, as she often did, Tubman not only overcame that challenge but also used it to empower herself. The dreams and voices that came with her condition became a comfort, a spiritual sign of God’s presence and approval.
Similarly, Larson said, Tubman overcame the disadvantages inherent to the African enslaved in America.
“There were many possibilities that were not available to her because of her status as a slave…. And she really had a double disadvantage by being African American and a woman, added to a lack of education which limited her economic opportunities,” the Simmons College lecturer said. “[But] she was a person who came out of the most obscure circumstances and rose above it to demand equality and justice.”
Tubman’s unparalleled chutzpah is attributable, in part, to the ambiguity of her home state, Maryland, the most northern of the Southern states. Given its geography—miles away from the free Northern states and situated near the sea, which offered a means of escape—Maryland was a state where the line between freedom and slavery was often blurred.
In Tubman’s own family, even as she, her mother and her siblings remained slaves, Tubman’s father was freed from slavery at 45; Tubman’s husband John was born free and, according to Biography.com, by the time she reached adulthood, approximately half the African-American people on the state’s eastern shore were free.
“Tubman, like Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall, was reflective of the quintessential border state character of Maryland,” said Larry S. Gibson, law professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and an expert in civil rights history. “It was a slavery state yet had a strong anti-slavery influence and therefore created more than its fair share of freedom fighters.”
Tubman became one of those when she returned to Maryland to rescue her family and other from bondage.
“By acting on her impulse to save her family, Tubman waged her personal war against slavery,” Larson said.
Today, 100 years after Tubman’s death, she is recognized as a towering figure in American history and an icon of the abolitionist movement.
In Maryland, the state recognized her contributions to its history on March 9, unveiling the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a scenic route that traverses important sites in the abolitionist’s life on the Eastern Shore. Gov. Martin O’Malley, joined by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other state and local officials, also broke ground on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which will consist of a 15,000 square foot Visitor Center, exhibit hall and theater, memorial garden and trails, a picnic pavilion, restrooms and administrative offices. The 17-acre development is expected be completed in 2015.
“[Tubman is] embraced as one of Maryland’s daughters,” Larson, who’s led historical tours in Tubman’s birthplace, said. “Marylanders rejoice in her and celebrate her. And I think her legacy there also provides hope and a point of pride.”
Such is the state’s pride that in the past three Congresses, Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., introduced legislation, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park Act, to establish national monuments honoring Tubman in Maryland and New York. The latest incarnation of the bill is pending in a congressional committee. Companion bill H.R. 513, sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., would preserve Tubman’s significant landscapes in Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties.
The requests are only appropriate, Larson said.
“Tubman was an American patriot…. She represents to America the true embodiment of what it means to be an American … someone who honors the American ideals of freedom, equality, justice and self-determination.”
Tubman became known as the “Moses” of her people, ferrying her parents, siblings and dozens of other slaves from the American Egypt of the South to the Promised Land of the North via the Underground Railroad.
“She was a genius. Even though she could not read or write, she had a brilliant mind,” said Larson of Tubman’s success despite she and her precious cargo being relentlessly hunted by authorities and slave catchers alike. “It took a tremendous amount of tenacity and courage and also a strong sense of faith in God and herself—she understood she could do it and acted on it.”
It also took selfless compassion, added Gibson.
“There are not many examples of that—slaves who were safely away [from bondage] and returned to a slave state to bring other people out while the authorities are actively searching for them,” said the Maryland professor. “That is what distinguishes her [from other African-American heroines]—the physical danger she operated under and her repeatedly putting herself in that danger.”
Other abolitionists, whom she met in Philadelphia, praised Tubman’s fearless leadership.
Fellow abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor William Still reportedly wrote in his diary: "Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she was wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave holders, seemed never to enter her mind."
Said Larson, “They looked at this petite, 5-foot woman and she was a giant in their eyes. She was like the salt of the earth but very poignant in her demands that they act because she was ready to act.”
Abolitionist John Brown, to whom Tubman was introduced in April 1858, was of a similar mind. For him, breaking down the walls of slavery demanded violent action. Admiring of Tubman’s tactical skill, Brown turned to “General Tubman” for help when he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, Va. And after his capture and execution, Tubman not only called him a martyr, but also seemed inspired by his sacrifice.
According to M.W. Taylor’s essay "General Tubman Goes to War" found in Harriet Tubman, Black Americans of Achievement, in April 1860 Tubman led a raid in Troy, N.Y., where she overwhelmed dozens of lawmen to rescue fugitive slave Charles Nalle. "‘Harriet Tubman's victory was a high point of the fugitive slave history that racked the nation's breast for 10 years. If Brown's Virginia raid was a dress rehearsal for the Civil War, Harriet's action was a bugle call for the war to begin,’" Taylor said.
With the dawning of the Civil War, Tubman’s personal war against slavery became a national one.
“Her ability to move behind enemy lines in hostile territory was used for the benefit of the Union army,” Gibson said.
Tubman served as an armed scout and spy—in addition to getting paid as a cook and nurse. In 1863, on commission from the Union army, Tubman organized a sophisticated network of scouts – and spies – among Blacks in the South.
In July 1863, Tubman headed the Combahee River Expedition, becoming the first woman to lead an armed mission in the war. Under her leadership, Union troops destroyed bridges and railroads, thus disrupting Southern supply lines. They also freed more than 750 slaves.
Gen. Rufus Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, said, "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted," according to About.com.
Despite her singular contributions to the war—and the resulting abolition of slavery—Tubman never received an army pension for her work.
After the war, Tubman settled on a small piece of property on the outskirts of Auburn, N.Y., with her family and other freed Blacks. In 1869, she married a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis, and five years later they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.
Despite her widespread fame she was never financially secure, historians wrote, but she gave freely. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and was concerned about the welfare of elderly African Americans. In 1903, she donated a parcel of land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn. The site was used to build The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which opened in 1908.
As Tubman advanced in age, the symptoms of her head injury became progressively worse. She underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to alleviate the pains and other symptoms of her epilepsy. She was eventually moved to the rest home named in her honor. There, surrounded by loved ones, Tubman died from pneumonia in 1913.