Harriet Tubman: Liberator of the enslaved

Apr 20, 2007

“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

—Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was responsible for the emancipation of thousands of Africans enslaved by the racist capitalist slaveowners in the United States. Her actions inspired thousands more to fight for and achieve freedom.

Tubman’s threat against the racist institution of slavery was so great that, in 1856, a $40,000 bounty was offered by the South for her capture. She became a major leader in the abolitionist movement in the United States. For her brilliance and determination in the struggle against slavery, we remember Tubman as a revolutionary woman.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Md., around 1820. Both her parents were slaves. By age six, she was forced to work as a house servant and frequently hired out by her owner to other “masters.” By age 13, she was sent to work in the fields.

Ross endured cruel and violent treatment from slaveowners. She was beaten and had scars until the day she died. Even as a child, she was subjected to whippings.

While a teenager, Tubman blocked a doorway to protect another slave from an angry overseer. The racist overseer threw a two pound dry goods store weight at the slave which fell short and struck Tubman in the head. This blow caused Tubman to suffer from epileptic seizures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life.

In 1849, Tubman’s “owner” died, leaving his wife to pay his debts. Fearing that she would be sold to a slaveowner in the Deep South, Tubman decided that if she wanted to be free, she would have to take her emancipation into her own hands.

One night in the fall of 1849, Tubman set out on foot and headed north, carrying a piece of paper with names of safe houses given to her by a white neighbor. With the help of other abolitionists, Tubman eventually arrived in Philadelphia.

‘Conductor’ Tubman

In Philadelphia, Tubman met William Still. He was the Philadelphia stationmaster of the Underground Railroad and member of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. Tubman quickly became a leader of the anti-slavery movement and one of the most active “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.

Within 10 years, she made 19 trips to the South to escort slaves to the North by way of covert routes and a network of safe houses. She personally escorted over 300 slaves to freedom, including her parents who were then 70 years of age.

When a passenger wanted to turn back due to fear or exhaustion, Tubman would pull out her gun and declare, “You’ll be free or die!” In all of her journeys on the Underground Railroad, she never lost a single passenger.

Tubman’s activism went beyond the Underground Railroad. She was the first American woman to plan and lead a military operation.

In 1863, during the Civil War, Tubman engineered and commanded the raid at Combahee Ferry that freed over 750 slaves. She also acted as a spy for the North. Yet, following the war, the U.S. government denied her payment for her wartime service. She was forced to ride in baggage car during her return trip home to Auburn, New York.

Tubman later helped found a home for ill and elderly African Americans in Auburn. The home was built on land that Tubman had purchased. She spent the last years of her life at this home. Tubman died in 1913.

Tubman was greatly admired by other abolitionists. John Brown described Tubman as “one of the bravest persons on this continent.” Tubman helped Brown recruit soldiers for the 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid. Brown affectionately referred to her as “General Tubman.”

Frederick Douglass said of Tubman, “Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people.”

Harriet Tubman’s bravery and ceaseless struggle against the enslavement of Africans paved the way for many women revolutionaries who followed—from Ida B. Wells to Assata Shakur and beyond. Tubman’s legacy is a reminder for all women warriors today that revolutionary change is possible to achieve through organized struggle.

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