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No Man Will Take Me Alive: Harriet Tubman
Born in Maryland in 1850 as Araminta Ross, Harriet Tubman faced nothing but a long life of hard work and abuse as a slave in the South. She was one of eleven children, but she lost three of her sisters to slave buyers. Defiance ran in Harriet’s blood though; her family was reportedly of Ashanti descent, a tribe renowned for their warriors, and when a slave buyer chased Harriet’s brother into their cabin, their mother rushed to the door and roared, “You are after my son, but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open!” The stunned buyer backed off.
At five years old Harriet was made to work as the housekeeper in her master’s house and babysat his children. She couldn’t stand working in the big house, desperate to be outside. Her unwillingness to work domestic chores got her beaten—by the time she was an adult her body was riddled with scars. She was leant out to her master’s friends who thought she was incompetent and brought her back. Harriet was then taken in by a woman who whipped her and returned her to the plantation after she ate a single sugar cube. Her master was fed up with her and finally sent a young teenaged Harriet out to work in the fields. She was only five feet tall, but the hard work of farming made her muscular and tough.
When she was a young teenager, a slave was caught stealing and tried to flee. The overseer picked up a 2 pound metal weight and threw it at the slave, but missed entirely. The weight struck Harriet in the forehead, and she collapsed in a heap. She was seriously hurt, having what we now believe to be a temporal lobe injury, resulting in epileptic-like seizures where she appeared unconscious but was aware of what was happening around her … but absolutely no attempt was ever made to help her; Harriet was allowed a short rest, but was forced to work forty-eight hours later. Her hair was still sticky with blood.
Years later after changing her name from “Araminta” to “Harriet,” after her mother, she married a freed slave named John Tubman. Harriet frequently told him how she wished to be free, but John told her to keep her mouth shut; slaves that ran away and were caught were severely beaten, and repeat offenders were killed … and the friends and family of the escaped slave were regularly tortured for information, even if they had no idea where the slave went. He had no interest in being maimed and disfigured for Harriet, and even told her he’d tell her owner that she was talking about escaping—it’d spare him.
That made Harriet furious, to say the least; in 1849, she and two of her brothers had tried to escape, but they had lost their nerve and turned back. Harriet was desperate to try again—this was no way to live a life, serving someone who hated you, being beaten, being treated like animals to be bought and sold …
And Harriet had heard about the Underground Railroad, the network of houses and churches, operated by people who hated slavery as much as she did. They would help escaped slaves travel north, to the states where slavery was illegal. They would help her.
Then Harriet discovered that she was going to be sold to another plantation. If she was going to escape, she had to do it now.
At the age of 29, Harriet fled the plantation alone, traveling north until she reached Philadelphia, a free city. A first Harriet was overwhelmed by the number of white people there, saying that she felt like a blackberry in a pail of milk, but she was determined to start a new life for herself. She got a job working at a hotel and saved her money, probably planning to buy her family’s freedom …
Then Harriet realized something; she knew the route. She escaped, she knew how.
Why couldn’t she just go back and help her family escape?
Reward Noticed Posted After Harriet's Escape
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
In 1850, Harriet went back to Maryland, helping her sister and her two children escape. In 1851 Harriet went back, saving her mother and her brother’s family. In all, Harriet traveled back and forth between the North and South nineteen times, rescuing over three hundred slaves from various plantations, though her own husband flat out refused to go with her. The plantation owners were outraged that “Black Moses,” as Harriet became known, had freed so many of their slaves that they actually placed a $40,000 bounty on “his” head—they were certain that it had to be a man, because a woman wouldn’t be brave or clever enough to pull the escapes off!
Dressed in men’s clothes and carrying a revolver, Harriet led the slaves through forests, swamps and fields to safe houses and churches. She had memorized a variety of different routes and was adept at planning and preparation, even supplying sleeping medicine for babies whose cries would have given them away. She made all of the slaves move, and when one panicking slave wanted to return to his plantation—where he would have been tortured into telling the slave owners where the escapees had gone—Harriet aimed her gun at the man’s head and said, “Move or die!” The frightened man complied and later Harriet proudly remarked that she never lost a single passenger on the Underground Railroad. Her friend Frederick Douglas, another crusader for the rights of all humans, admiringly remarked of Harriet, “I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you …”
Harriet found different ways of throwing the pursuing bounty hunters off her trail, such as buying train ticket for various destinations and then never boarding, and freeing slaves on a Saturday because the missing slave notices wouldn’t be printed until Monday and they would have had a huge head start. Harriet never learned to read or write, but she was deeply religious and with her excellent memory memorized most of the Bible. According to one story, Harriet carried a Bible with her wherever she went, regularly pulling it out and pretending to read it—the bounty hunters knew she couldn’t read, so they would walk right past her without a second thought. One day while she was at a train station waiting for the bounty hunters to pass by, Harriet pretended to read her Bible. A white man sat next to her and said, “You’re Harriet Tubman, aren’t you?”
Without flinching, Harriet looked at him and said, “I’m reading. Harriet Tubman can’t read.”
Grinning, the man reached for the Bible in her hands and flipped it rightside up—she had been looking at it upside down! Harriet was horrified, but, as the story goes, the man was a sympathizer and never breathed a word.
When Harriet wasn’t rescuing slaves, she was giving public speeches on abolitionism and became friends with the failed revolutionary John Brown. Soon the Civil War was in full swing—fueled (unintentionally) by Harriet, whose impassioned speeches and descriptions of plantation life stirred many Northerners to action against the South.
It seems that these speeches also drew the attention of the Union Army; when the ranking officers realized that Harriet’s knowledge of the terrain and roads in the South, as she talked about in her speeches, she would make an excellent scout. They recruited her to continue to go into the South, spying and building her own network of spies using slaves that were still captive there.
In time the Union Army began its push into the South. Harriet continued work as a spy and scout, frequently working as a nurse in the dysentery and smallpox tents and actively recruiting escaped, freed and abandoned slaves into the army. In July 1863, Harriet was put in charge of a contingent of armed riverboats which she guided up the Tennessee River. Her mission was to blow up several bridges and railroad links in order to cripple the South’s ability to move men and supplies to the front lines. In doing so she freed an additional 800 slaves from surrounding plantations. Her general wrote to the U.S. War secretary, saying, “This is the only military command in American history when a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted,” and Union officers were ordered to tip their hats to Harriet whenever she passed.
After three years of serving the Union Army, Harriet finally saw the South fall and all of the slaves go free. She married Nelson Davis, a free black man and Union soldier who was twenty-four years younger than she. Shockingly, after the war Harriet was denied a military pension—she could only collect her husband’s pension after he passed away. So much for gratitude. Still, Harriet was awarded a silver medal and a personal letter from England’s Queen Victoria for her bravery, and while Harriet still couldn’t read she adored the letter and almost wore it out looking at it.
Moving to Auburn, New York, Harriet kept herself busy. To support herself she sold food and beer, founded schools for freed slaves, taught, preached, and turned her house into The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indignant Colored People, where she cared for the elderly and orphans. She wanted the only real rule to be that her home was completely free to people who didn’t even have a dollar to their name, but her trustee board insisted that she charge at least a small amount.
She struggled with income for a while, until a white neighbor offered to help her write, publish and sell her autobiography. This kindly person prefaced the book with an apology for making “a heroine of a black woman,” but Harriet kept all the profits. In the book Harriet stated, “I had reasoned this out in my mind. 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, for no man should take me alive. I should fight for liberty so long as my strength lasted.”
In 1890 she underwent brain surgery to correct her worsening seizures. In classic Harriet Tubman-style, she declined anesthetic, and instead bit down on a bullet as the doctors operated.
Ever a crusader for humankind, Harriet’s next great passion was women’s rights, and she campaigned ardently for the right to vote. When a white woman asked her if she really believed that women should have the right to vote, Harriet shot back, “I’ve suffered enough to believe it.”
Harriet carried on campaigning for women’s rights until the very end. At the age of 93, ill with pneumonia, Harriet whispered these last words to her friends and family, “Tell the women to stand together.” One month later, one of the greatest Americans that ever lived passed away.
Harriet Tubman works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E Jones 2000
Usborne Book of Famous Women, Phillippa Wingate eta al
Lives of Extraordinary Women, Kathleen Krull 2000
Cool Women, Dawn Chipman et al 1998
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011