Famous Heroines - Harriet Tubman

‘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.’

Harriet Tubman born Araminta 'Minty' Ross; c.1822 to slave parents, Harriet (‘Rit’) Green and Ben Ross. Rit was a cook and owned by Mary Pattison Brodess. Ben was held by Anthony Thompson, who became Mary's second husband, and who ran a large plantation near Blackwater River in Madison, Maryland. As with many slaves in the United States, neither the exact year nor place of Araminta's birth is known. 

Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery tore it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah- Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever. When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit's youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other slaves and those who had won their freedom in the community. Finally, Brodess and ‘the Georgia man’ came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. 

Around 1844, she married a free man named John Tubman. Although little is known about him or their time together, the union was complicated because of her slave status. Since the mother's status dictated that of children, any children born to Harriet and John would be enslaved. 

Harriet Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave and hit her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She was a devout Christian and experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God. 

In 1849, Harriet became ill again, which diminished her value as a slave. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. Brodess died shortly afterwards increasing the likelihood that Harriet would be sold and her family broken apart. His widow, Eliza, began working to sell the family's slaves. Harriet refused to wait for the Brodess family to decide her fate, despite her husband's efforts to dissuade her. 

She and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from slavery on September 17th, 1849. Once they had left, her brothers had second thoughts, the two men went back, forcing her to return with them. Soon afterward, Harriet escaped again, this time without her brothers. While her exact route is unknown, Harriet made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organized system was composed of free and enslaved people, white abolitionists, and other activists. 

In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) “never lost a passenger”. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she helped guide fugitives farther north into British North America, and helped newly freed slaves find work. 

When the Civil War began, Harriet worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 slaves. After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her ageing parents. She was active in the woman's suffrage movement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After she died in 1913, she became an icon of American courage and freedom. On April 20th, 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a plan for Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson as the portrait gracing the $20 bill.