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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

More Courage than Anyone: Harriet Tubman

Last week I said that I was going to say more about Harriet Tubman, whose image will inspire the next generation on our twenty-dollar bills. She deserves a full column on her own, and here it is.

A child named Arminta was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, on its eastern shore, about 1820. The granddaughter of slaves brought from Africa, she never knew her age, let alone her birthday. Later she gave herself her mother’s name, Harriet. Along with about a dozen siblings, she grew up more secure than many slave children, as both of her parents were part of her life throughout her youth.

At about thirteen, however, she suffered irreparable injury when an angry overseer threw a two-pound weight at a slave boy who was running from him; the weight hit Harriet in the head, fracturing her skull. Ever after, she would be handicapped by seizures and unpredictable attacks of coma-like sleep. Her recovery was slow, but eventually she was strong enough to return to physical labor. Although only five feet tall and of slight build, she joined her father in doing the “male job” of cutting timber.

In 1844, when she presumably was about 24, Harriet married John Tubman, a free black. She remained in slavery; the union produced no children; and like a number of other prominent black women, a husband did not become an important factor in Harriet Tubman’s life. Five years later, amid rumors that a new master planned to sell her, she escaped to Philadelphia. It is across the Delaware River from her Maryland home, and Pennsylvania had abolished slavery decades earlier.

Tubman worked in a hotel throughout 1849 and saved her money; the next year, she daringly risked her freedom by returning to Baltimore to lead out her sister’s family. The following year, she made two more trips into Maryland, liberating her brother and his family and then another group of eleven. For the rest of the 1850s, she went back again and again, making approximately nineteen dangerous trips into slave territory and rescuing as many as three hundred people from bondage. In 1857, she had the special joy of guiding out her parents, who were in their seventies, to live their last days in freedom. She offered to bring out her husband, but he apparently was satisfied with his life and refused to take the risk.

More than any other person of either race or gender, Harriet Tubman displayed nerves of steel and quick-witted intelligence. Although she had the help of white liberals on this “Underground Railroad,” there was, of course, no secret railroad: The reality was walking country roads alone in the fearful dark of night, hoping to get to the next refuge in a barn or basement by daylight. Often there was no safe house, and the groups she led had to hide themselves in swamps or forests, being silent and hoping no dog could sense them.

Naturally shy, with “no pretensions” and “ordinary” in appearance, Harriet Tubman seemingly had no special gifts to account for her extraordinary courage and skill. Instead, she was handicapped by illiteracy and unable to read maps or signs. She operated by memorizing landmarks and developing an uncanny sense of direction. She worked out codes in the Bible quotations that she used in conversation and hid meanings in the hymns she sang, so that what appeared to be pious passivity to whites actually delivered important information to knowing blacks.

Her keen mind several times rapidly devised ruses to divert the suspicious. Perhaps the most famous was when she spent precious money to buy tickets for her group on a southbound train, thinking that the detective who was following them would accept this as evidence that she was a slave who was trusted by her master, for no black person would freely choose to travel South.

Canada: Home of the Brave and Truly Free

As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress passed a Fugitive Slave Act that made it illegal for white people to assist blacks who were attempting to escape from their masters. Many slave traders took advantage of this, kidnapping even legally free slaves in the North and selling them in the South. Many free African Americans thus moved to Canada, where the law protected them. Tubman established a home in St. Catherines, Ontario, on the northern side of Niagara Falls, and took many of those she liberated the hundreds of miles there.

Called “Moses” because she led her people to the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman trusted prayer but nonetheless traveled with a gun. More than once she threatened to use it on quavering slaves who might have betrayed others for their personal benefit. She also encouraged white radical John Brown, who planned to lead a major slave revolt. Using his prophetic speaking style, Brown said, “The first I see is General Tubman, the second is General Tubman, and the third is General Tubman.”

There are indeed indications that she planned to be part of his 1859 raid on a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in western Virginia, but was prevented by illness. Had she been there, her life probably would have ended prematurely as did those of other nameless blacks. It was Brown who was eulogized in the North, while the roles of the twenty-one others who joined him were minimized. And almost no one knew of the quiet achievements of Harriet Tubman.

As divisions between the North and South grew, more and more people refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law, and Tubman felt secure enough to move her headquarters back to the US. Federal official and abolitionist William Seward sold her a small farm in Auburn, New York, at a reduced price. The area was home to many liberals; indeed, the women’s rights movement began in nearby Seneca Falls in 1848. Tubman’s parents and other refugees felt safe in this enclave, but she continued to risk her life.

One of her greatest exploits took place in Troy, New York, in 1860, the year before the war began. Told that police there had custody of an escaped slave and intended to return him to his master, she led a group that successfully assaulted the law enforcers and freed the man. Property loss to slave owners became so great that they unconsciously honored this small, shy woman by eventually offering as much as $40,000 in rewards for her capture.

And the War Came

Although she could have stayed safely in New York, Tubman again headed South when the war began. In her forties by then, she continued to show physical stamina and personal bravery. With sponsorship from the governor of Massachusetts, she joined Union soldiers on the South Carolina sea islands. Confederates there had begun the war by firing on the federal property of Fort Sumter, just off the coast of Charleston. Because the Union Navy was much superior to anything that the South had, slaves on those islands – going all the way down to Florida’s Amelia Island – were the first to be liberated.

Major General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, provided Tubman with authorization to travel on any military transport she chose, and for the next three years, she acted as a spy and scout for the Union. She provided much valuable information, for she could easily pass among black informants behind Confederate lines. It nonetheless was especially dangerous work, as mainland slaves attempting to escape to the islands were tortured and savagely killed.

Doubtless Tubman could have done even more for the Union had officials been willing to utilize her abilities to their fullest, for her experience in covert activity surely surpassed that of virtually any intelligence officer. But she not only was black, she was a woman, and military officials were not creative enough to make maximum use of the expertise she offered. Instead, like many women of both races, Harriet Tubman spent much of the war working as a nurse – an area in which she was inexperienced. At the war’s end, this masterfully talented woman was at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where she volunteered at a hospital for ex-slaves, while raising chickens and selling eggs to support herself.

Continuing to live humbly after the war, she returned to Auburn and officially opened her little farm as the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent Aged Negroes. She began to attend the meetings of women’s rights advocates, and a white woman, Sarah Bradford, recorded her story in Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1869). This sketch was expanded into a book in 1886, which not only made her secret activity public, but also provided a source of needed income.

A second marriage, in the same year that her brief narrative was published, did not change her independent status. Her husband, Nelson Davis, was a former slave who had fought for the Union Army. She presumably was 49 years old when they wed, and he was said to have been 22 years younger than she, making him 27. Some rationalized this unusual situation by saying that she was nursing his alleged tuberculosis -- but he lived another 20 years. He never was a prominent part of her public life, however, and she retained the Tubman name.

When Davis died, she applied for a pension as a veteran’s widow and also renewed an earlier effort to be compensated for her own war work. Finally, in 1897, Congress granted her $20 a month for the services she rendered as “commander of several men as scouts during the late War of Rebellion.” Although this was 30 years overdue and still meager, the pension allowed her to continue to travel in her old age. She spoke to the National American Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in Washington in 1896, and the next year, the organization honored her with a reception. In the NAWSA’s massive history of literally thousands of pages, however, Susan B. Anthony described Tubman in one line: “the colored woman so noted in anti-slavery days for her assistance to fugitive slaves.”

Harriet Tubman lived well into the twentieth century, dying in 1913, when she presumably was 93. Her burial in Auburn was with military honors, and prominent leader Booker T. Washington dedicated a memorial stone. A World War II ship was christened for her, and in 1978, the first of a Black Heritage postal stamp series featured her image. Now she will grace our twenties.

A Personal Note

Hubby and I spent several days poking around Harriet Tubman’s western New York neighborhood in 1998, the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention that was the first call for women’s inclusion as full citizens. I wrote a book for that occasion, and the late Geraldine Ferrarro, who was the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president, wrote its introduction. Hillary was there – another indication of how very long and thorough is her dedication to full human rights. Please tell your granddaughters!

Although I enjoyed the Tubman museum on her Auburn farm, I had more fun trying to trace her wartime path in South Carolina. Our daughter was my major cohort in that venture, which centered around the beautiful coastal town of Beaufort. (There’s a Beaufort in North Carolina, too, so don’t let that confuse you. Oddly enough, they are pronounced differently.) The South Carolina one is on Port Royal Island, one of the main sea islands that were so important in the early days of the Civil War.

The museum there paid relatively little attention to women, although many interesting women of both races volunteered on the sea islands during the war. Daughter and I, however, spotted a picture of the hospital for blacks where Harriet Tubman worked. After the museum closed, we walked around the lovely town and saw a house that, although better painted, looked exactly like the one in the picture. It was a pleasant spring evening, and as we were staring at the house, a young white man came out. With a carnation on his lapel and a corsage box in his hand, he obviously was headed to a prom. But he stopped and spoke politely, and with lots of uses of “yes, ma’am,” told us that his home indeed was the former hospital where Harriet Tubman worked. Amazing!

Last word: Harriet Tubman’s accomplishment in freeing hundreds of slaves is especially significant when it is remembered that she acted alone, without a supporting organization or the comfort of a military unit. Moreover, she had a number of handicaps to overcome: Not only was she a woman, but also physically small. She was illiterate in a task that would have been immeasurably easier had she been able to read maps and write letters giving herself a master’s permission to travel.

Finally, she could have excused herself on the valid basis of her old brain injury: at any perilous moment, she might have slipped into unconsciousness. Yet despite all of these reasons for harboring herself safely in Canada, she took trip after trip into the danger zone. No black man similarly risked his life. Indeed, there are few others in all of American history whose records can match Harriet Tubman’s for sheer courage.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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