When learning about African American civil rights, the important figures that come to mind are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This is perhaps because much of civil rights education is focused on the fight against Jim Crow Laws in the 20th Century. However, a figure that deserves upmost recognition alongside these prominent figures is Harriet Tubman, the recognition of Harriet Tubman should coincide with an in depth education of the West’s dark history of slavery.
Harriet Tubman was known as the ‘Moses of her people’, just as Moses led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, Harriet led rescue missions and helped free around 300 enslaved people using the underground railroad, from slavery in the South of the USA to freedom in the North of the USA throughout 11 years . Harriet Tubman is an inspiration for her bravery and determination in freeing not only herself but many others, risking both her life and freedom in dangerous and treacherous journeys.
Her Early Life.
It is believed that Harriet was born in 1820 in Maryland, but an exact year isn’t known due to those who were born slaves as not having official documentation. She was whipped as a child and suffered a traumatic head injury when an overseer threw a two-pound metal weight at another slave who was attempting to flee. The weight struck Tubman instead. Since this, she suffered from hypersomnia and headaches and started having visions which she interpreted as revelations from God. She became passionately devoted to God believing the Old Testament and rejecting the teachings of the New Testament which told slaves to be obedient.
Escape from Slavery
In 1849 Tubman fled to Philadelphia after her owner died and it was likely that she would be sold. She maintained that ‘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”. She tried to send word of her plans beforehand to her mother. She sang a coded song to Mary, a trusted fellow slave, that was a farewell. “I’ll meet you in the morning”, she intoned, “I’m bound for the promised land’. Her route was bound by the underground railway which was created by abolitionists, she had to travel at night to reduce the likelihood of being caught and the Northern star guided her to the Northern states. She had to avoid the slave captures who patrolled escape routes, eager to reap rewards for captured slaves. The ‘conductors’ on the underground railway helped her conceal her escaping. She eventually made it to Philadelphia. However, her freedom was not enough as she felt immense guilt that she was free and her family was still enslaved. Thus she embarked on a mission back to Maryland to rescue them.
Over 11 years, Harriet conducted many rescue missions saving many slaves using the underground railway system and always through the Eastern shore of Maryland to Northern states and Canada. She carried a revolver with her and wasn’t afraid to use it. The journeys Harriet took were treacherous and each time carried immense risk to her own life and freedom, however the knowledge that Tubman was behind the escaping was not known by slave owners in the region, she used ingenious hiding methods and her courage was more than admirable. She often used winter months to minimise risk and gained the nickname ‘Moses’. She famously never lost a passenger on her routes. Her nickname Moses also may have come from how religious she was She used spirituals as coded messages, warning fellow travellers of danger or to signal a clear path. As she led fugitives across the border, she would call out, “Glory to God and Jesus, too. One more soul is safe!’.
During the Civil War and After
Tubman remained active during the Civil War. Tubman quickly became an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
Aint I a woman?
Researching Harriet Tubman reminds me of the speech ‘Aint I a woman’? by Soujourner Truth, who also was an abolitionist and an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage.
Bits of the speech:
‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?‘
Sojourner’s speech advocated for not only blacks being equal to whites but women being equal to men. Brave, strong Black women such as Sojourner and Harriet who had faced hardships that white women hadn’t and thus proved that women were strong and equal to men and thus did not fit the stereotype of a ‘woman’ that was created based on a white rich woman’s experience of being weak and needing looking after. It is heartbreaking that black women having faced the adversity of racism and slavery and proved themselves as inspiring and courageous through escaping slavery still had to fight against sexism. Womanhood had been defined by a white woman’s experience and this definition of womanhood prevented women’s suffrage. It is true that despite Tubman’s immense service to the civil rights movement and the civil war she still faced sexism. In later life she worked for women’s suffrage, it is seemingly implausible everything she went through and the service she did to the country, she had to prove herself worthy of the vote not only because of her race but because of her gender. Hence Truth’s poem ‘aint I a woman?’ rang true of many black women’s experience and the adversity they faced was monumental in redefining womanhood and advocating for gender equality. Despite the mainstream suffragette movements being racist and elitist.
Racism she faced afterwards…
Lastly, it is important to note that as it is well-known, despite the abolition of slavery, Black people were far from equality. Despite Tubman’s service, her unofficial status and the unequal payments offered to black soldiers caused great difficulty in documenting her service, and the U.S. government was slow in recognizing its’ debt to her. She, like all other black people, were treated as second class citizens and during a train ride to New York in 1869, the conductor told her to move from a half-price section into the smoking car. She refused, showing the government-issued papers that entitled her to ride there. He cursed her and broke her arm in the process.
A movie based on Harriet Tubman’s rescue missions is out and the trailer is here:
- Truth, S ‘Aint I a Woman’, Women’s Rights National Historical Park, 2017.
- Wikipedia, Harriet Tubman, Wikipedia the Free Encylopedia.
- N/A ‘Harriet Tubman Biography’, Biography Magazine, 2018.
- History.com editors, Harriet Tubman, 2008, History.com