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Harriet Tubman was a leader on the Underground Railroad, and she spent most of her life on the Underground Railroad. She was only 27 years old when she became a conductor; she helped free over 300 people and made over 19 trips.
When we think of African American history, many of us often forget about some of the most famous people that did many amazing things. One of these many famous people was Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman’s contribution to history was that she was the conductor of the Underground Railroad, which helped bring slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist and was part of the woman’s suffrage movement.
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Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1820 or 1821, on a plantation in Dorchester County, Buckton, Maryland, and the slave of Anthony Thompson. Anthony was a very harsh slave owner; he would whip his slave for no reason. She was one of eleven children to Harriet Ross and Benjamin Green. Her mother was the property of Mary Pattison Brodess, while her father, Benjamin, was owned by Anthony Thompson. Her father was a timber inspector, supervising the timber on Anthony Thompson’s plantation. After a while, Harriet’s parents started calling her Minty. Like many families during this time, the family struggled to stay together. The Brodesses sold her sisters Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph away, causing them to be separated from their families forever.
Being such a young age, Harriet’s heart was broken, and she made a promise to the slave owner that she would pray to god and become free one day. They were often hired out to whites in the area, so at many times, Harriet Tubman experienced frequent separations. She has been ripped away many times away from her family; she would spend weeks away from her family. Her four younger siblings were often left in her care while her mother and older sisters worked on outside plantations, spending many hours working and doing harsh labor at such a young age.
At the age of 5, she started working full-time. Her master would hire them out to other families within the area. She cleaned white people’s houses during the day and took care of their children at night. She had to stay up all night with the babies so that they wouldn’t wake up and disturb… If the bay cried, then Harriet would get whipped. The whipping left Harriet with permanent physical and emotional scars. After working in the Big House for around two years, Harriet was rented out to a planter to set muskrat traps.
Harriet, when she was a child, had enjoyed playing in the woods with her father. Harriet’s father taught her about the North Star, “if you are ever lost, Harriet, just look for the North Star, and it will show you the way. Harriet’s father also taught her that if you can not see the North Star, remember that moss always grows on the north side of trees and rocks. The whipping left Harriet with permanent physical and emotional scars.
Later Harriet said that she preferred working out in the fields rather than working in the house as a maid. Harriet’s desire for justice became apparent at the age of twelve when she was hit in the head with a heavyweight when she blocked the way of it, killing a fugitive and taking the weight to the head instead. She later said about the incident, “The weight broke my skull and left me with a dent in my head and sleep spells that could happen any time. These sleep spells made her unattractive to potential slave buyers. At times she would pretend to fall asleep to trick the slave buyer into not wanting her. At the age of twelve, Harriet started wearing a yellow bandanna around her head, showing that she was not a child anymore; it was a sign of her courage through hard times.
In 1844, Harriet received permission from her master to marry John Tubman, a free black man. For the next five years, Harriet lived in a state of semi-slavery: She remained legally a slave, but her master allowed her to live with her husband. Since Harriet was still a slave, she knew there was a chance that she could be sold and her marriage split apart. Harriet dreamed of traveling north. There, she would be free and not have to worry about her marriage being split up by the slave trade. But John did not want her to go north. He said he was fine where he was and that there was no reason to move north. He told her that if she ran off, he would tell her master. She did not believe him until she saw his face, and then she knew he meant it.
The death of her master in 1847, followed by the death of his young son and heir in 1849, made Tubman’s status uncertain. Amid rumors that the family’s slaves would be sold to settle the estate, Tubman fled to the North and found freedom. But when there, in Philadelphia, she grew terribly lonely. She worked for the year and saved her money, determined to bring “her people” to freedom, as well. In 1850 Harriet helped her first slaves escape: her sister and her sister’s two children. That same year Harriet was made an official “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. This meant that she knew all the routes to free territory, and she had to take an oath of silence so the secret of the Underground Railroad would be kept secret. In 1851 she rescued her brother James and other friends. She also tried, on this trip, to get her husband, John, to come with her,
Tubman made eleven trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852-1857. During the ten years, she worked as a conductor, Harriet managed to save 300 people, making 19 trips altogether. She never lost a passenger on the way. Her career in the Railroad ended around December 1860, and for her safety, her friends took her to Canada.
Tubman returned to the US from living in Canada in 1861. The Civil War had begun and was enlisting all men as soldiers and any women who wanted to join as cooks and nurses. Tubman enlisted into the Union Army as a contraband nurse in a hospital in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She treated her patients with medicine from roots and miraculously never caught any of the deadly diseases the wounded soldiers would carry. Not only did she nurse the sick and wounded back to health, but she also tried to find them work. In the Civil War, she also helped to prepare food for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Composed entirely of black soldiers and known as the Glory Brigade) and was also a scout. She put together a group of spies who kept Colonel James Montgomery informed about slaves who might want to join the Union Army.
After the war, Harriet returned home to Auburn, NY, where she once stayed with her parents. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis, and together, they shared a calm, peaceful 19-year marriage until he died. She donated a piece of property to the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1908 in hopes of a home for elderly and poor black people to be constructed on that land. It eventually was, and she lived there, telling her stories to visitors until she died on March 10, 1913.
Harriet was never the only slave with rebellion on her mind. She had grown up hearing whispered stories of slave revolts. Back in the days of her grandmother, white refugees had run to Baltimore, fleeing from a bloody slave uprising in Haiti, where a black republic was successfully established. In the United States, Gabriel Prosser had planned a night attack on Richmond, Virginia, with a group of more than a thousand blacks, but he failed. Around the time Harriet was born, Denmark Vesey recruited thousands of supporters in a plan to kill the whites in Charleston, South Carolina. But he was betrayed and hanged.
The peace was further threatened in the August of 1831 when Harriet was about 11 years old. In Harriet’s neighboring state of Virginia, Nat Turner led a band of black men in killing 57 white men, women, and children. They began late on a Sunday night, slaying Turner’s master and his family in their bedrooms. And they continued through the night and the next day, killing every white person they found. It took three US Army regiments to stop them, and Nat eluded pursuers for two months before he was arrested and hanged in November. To slaveholders, this news was a nightmare come true. In areas where whites retaliated, fifty-five blacks were killed without a trial. But the dream of deliverance lived on. In areas where whites retaliated, fifty-five blacks were killed without a trial. But the dream of deliverance lived on. In areas where whites retaliated, fifty-five blacks were killed without a trial. But the dream of deliverance lived on.
In 1846 Dred Scott, a slave living in St. Louis, Missouri, sued to prove that he, his wife, and his two daughters were legally entitled to their freedom. After being tried several times, the case went before the US Supreme Court in 1856. The following year, the Court rejected Scott’s claim concluding that blacks, even when free, could never become citizens of the United States.
In September of 1850, the same year that Harriet escaped, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. It allowed anyone the right to capture any black person and send them back to the South. This law caused the Underground Railroad to tighten security. It created a code to make things more secret. It also sent the escaping slaves into Canada instead of the “North” of the US. In 1861, the Civil War began.
Harriet Tubman responded eloquently to the historical events that she has become famous for being involved in. Escaping slavery when she was 28, she did so out of fear of being traded to a plantation further South, which was almost positive death for any slave. When she had escaped to Philadelphia, she looked only to put an end to the loneliness that she had been plagued with since she left her family back in the South. This is why she made the first of many trips back to Maryland to bring her brother and friends to freedom. Harriet never began to disguise herself on her trips until pictures and descriptions of her were sent across the South for her capture.
She then began to use her street smarts to disguise herself as many things: a decrepit old man, an old woman, or even a young male slave. When the Civil War began, Harriet returned to the US from her hiding in Canada in order to help her country and further her ongoing fight for freedom. Harriet Tubman responded to every situation she faced with bravery and tact. She was truly a great woman, a great American, and a great human being.
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