16 November 2010

Real Life Heroes: Harriet Tubman

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

The accolade of hero is appropriate when applied to Harriet Tubman, a woman born into slavery whose activities ranged from abolitionist during the Civil War era to staunch supporter of the women's suffrage movement during the early 1900s.

Born Araminta Ross during a time when neither year nor place of birth was recorded for most slaves, various historical documents place Tubman's birth date somewhere between 1815 and 1825. One of "Minty's" first responsibilities at age 5 or 6 was as a child's nurse. After learning she would be whipped if the baby in her charge cried, she adopted the practice of wrapping herself in extra layers of clothing to minimize the damage inflicted by the beatings she endured.

At age 12, she suffered a serious head injury when a heavy metal weight thrown by an angry overseer at another slave hit Tubman instead as she acted to protect the slave from injury. Historians speculate that Tubman suffered from epilepsy as a result of this injury, citing symptoms of headaches and seizures resulting in sudden sleep. After being brought up by deeply religious parents on Bible stories featuring themes of deliverance from oppression, Tubman believed the visions that accompanied her seizures represented direct communication from God.

She married free black man John Tubman in 1844, changing her name from Araminta to Harriet--her mother's name--around that time. Despite her husband's free status, Harriet's status as a slave dictated that any children born to her would also be slaves.

After reaching the decision, "Liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other," Harriet escaped and fled north with her two brothers on September 17, 1849, but after their owners posted a reward notice for the return of the three escaped slaves, her brothers began to fear the consequences of capture and forced Harriet to return with them.

She soon escaped again and fled to freedom alone, using an allied network of freed blacks, white abolitionists, and other antislavery activists known as the Underground Railroad, to escape into Pennsylvania. Traveling by night and using the North Star for guidance, she watched for signs such as lanterns on hitching posts indicating safe houses as she made her way north to freedom.

After her escape to Philadelphia, she worked as a cook and domestic in order to earn money to return to Maryland to guide her own family north and to help other slaves escape to freedom. As one of the most famous of the Underground Railroad "conductors," Harriet Tubman led numerous missions and it is estimated she rescued more than 300 slaves over a period of eleven years, constantly risking her own safety and freedom to aid others. Sadly, her sister Rachel died before she could be rescued, and Tubman did not have the funds to make the bribes necessary to free Rachel's two children, who remained enslaved.

After the Fugitive State Law was enacted by Congress in 1850 imposing penalties on law enforcement and providing for payment of bounties upon the return of escaped slaves, the risk of capture increased to the point where slaves began heading for the safety of Canada, a country which refused to extradite fugitives. In tribute to her fearless and selfless exploits, Tubman earned the nicknames, "General Tubman" and "The Moses of her People."

Years later, she told an audience: "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say--I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." Her impressive record was mostly likely due in part to the fact that she allowed no turning back and she carried a loaded revolver to back up that policy during the trek north. As she told one runaway slave who began to lose courage on the journey north, "You'll be free or die." As she later explained, "a live runaway could do great harm by going back, but a dead one could tell no secrets."

When the Civil War broke out, Tubman saw a Union victory as the perfect means to end slavery. She joined the Union Army, first working as a cook and a nurse, and then later as a scout and a Union spy. Giving up government rations after others grumbled she was receiving special treatment, she began selling pies and root beer to support herself. In June of 1863, she led the Combahee River Raid, freeing more than 700 slaves and becoming the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.

After her first husband did not join her in freedom, she married a man 22 years her junior in 1869, and they adopted a daughter. During her lifetime, her humanitarian efforts included teaching newly freed blacks how to become self-sufficient, raising funds for schools, and finding housing and clothing for the poor and disabled. Her humanitarian works kept her mired in poverty and she worked various jobs and took in boarders to offset her expenses. Friends and supporters from her abolitionist days raised funds to help support her.

Tubman retired in Auburn, NY after the war, and became active in the women's suffrage movement, working alongside Susan B. Anthony. She spoke out publicly in favor of women's rights, and used her own experience to illustrate that women were equal to men, citing having received such "man honors" as having a ship named for her. Illness eventually forced her to be admitted to the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, a home for elderly African Americans she had helped open years before. She died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913 after telling those assembled, "I go to prepare a place for you." She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

Lisa Marie Wilkinson is an IPPY Gold Medal winning author of historical adventure-romance. Her latest novel, STOLEN PROMISE, featuring vibrant Gypsy characters and breath-taking romance, is available now.