Harriet Tubman: Humanitarian and Civil Rights Activist

Harriett Tubman pictured with slaves navigating through the underground railroad

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross around 1820 in Bucktown, Maryland. Born into slavery, she was the 11th child of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green. Bucktown was a small settlement of no more than 12 houses, a store, a church, and a post office. 

The family shared a one room cabin with no windows or furniture on land owned by Edward Brodess (Brodas), who had a large plantation which lies on what is now Greenbrier Road in Cambridge, Maryland. Aside from first growing tobacco, Edward Brodess made most of his money selling or renting slaves. Other crops grown on the plantation included cotton, sugar cane, and rice.

At six years old, Araminta (Minty) was rented to a nearby family named Cook. Mrs. Cook was a weaver, who turned the plantation’s cotton into cloth, and Mr. Cook was a trapper. After falling sick with the measles, Harriet Tubman was returned to the Brodess plantation, nursed back to health by her parents, and rented again at seven to a woman known to her as Miss Susan.

At about 12 or 13-years-old, she would witness a slave attempting to run away. Leaving the cornfields, he made his way inside of a town store. With a blacksnake whip in hand, the overseer pursued him, asking that she hold him down. Refusing to do so, he threw a two-pound weight from the counter towards the runaway who by then fled through the doorway, striking her in the forehead, leaving a gash in her skull. She remained unconscious for days and almost died, leading to a life-long problem of sleeping fits. Once recovered, she went back to work in the fields.

When she was 14-years-old, James Brodess died. Doc Johnson was left in charge of his estate and hired her out several times. Once to John Stewart, who had her work alongside her father in cutting down trees. Ben would teach her how to determine directions (N,E,S,W), what plants to eat, how to catch small animals, and how to hide in the woods. She was taught to look for the North Star, the one that stayed constant, and that anyone walking could use as a guide.

In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black man. When she shared her dreams of going north with him, he thought they were foolish and said that he would turn her in should she ever try.

Despite this, Harriet Tubman dreamt of being free and traveling the underground railroad. Used mostly between the late 1700s and 1865, these routes were a series of houses and places where white and black people traveled from the south to northern free states then to Canada. There’s evidence that a few went to Mexico, and even countries in the Caribbean.

One night in 1849 as John Tubman slept, Harriet Tubman made her escape. Heading north to the Choptank River, down to the town of Camden, Delaware, then Wilmington, Delaware, the trip took many days until she arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She took a job at a hotel kitchen cooking, washing dishes, and scrubbing pots.

She would return to Maryland to free her family and her husband in 1850, who by then had remarried. She spent the next ten years making about 13 trips into Maryland to rescue others. Pennsylvania would no longer be safe for runaway slaves, instead Harriet Tubman lead them to Canada. 

She worked for the union army as a spy, scout, nurse and cook from 1862 to 1865, during the American Civil War. She witnessed the attack on Fort Wagner, led by the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first black regiment organized in the north. More than 350 black soldiers would be killed.

“We saw the lightning, and that was the guns; then we heard thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was drops of blood falling. And when we went to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”

She would become a supporter of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, joining their cause in campaigning for women’s right to vote.

Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in Auburn, New York in March 10, 1913. She is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honors.

“When I had found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.”

Like this post? Stop by and read “Sojourner Truth: A Quest for a More Equal Society for African Americans and Women.” Sojourner Truth also supported the cause of the Underground Railroad. She provided needed clothing, blankets, food, and recruited African American soldiers for the Union’s only Black regiment during the Civil War.

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