Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1820 – March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War.
After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made 19 missions to Maryland to rescue over 300 people using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out her revolver and said, “You’ll be free or you’ll die a slave!”
The petite Tubman knew that if anyone turned back, it would put her and the other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture or even death. She became so well known for leading slaves to freedom that Tubman became known as the “Moses of Her People.” Many slaves dreaming of freedom sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses.”
Slaves hoped a savior would deliver them from slavery just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from slavery. During these dangerous journeys she helped rescue members of her own family, including her 70-year-old parents. At one point, rewards for Tubman’s capture was a combined total of $40,000. Yet, she was never captured and never failed to deliver her “passengers” to safety. As Tubman herself said, “On my Underground Railroad I [never] run my train off [the] track [and] I never [lost] a passenger.”
One day, when she was an adolescent, Tubman was sent to a dry-goods store for some supplies. There, she encountered a slave owned by a different family, who had left the fields without permission. His overseer, furious, demanded that Tubman help restrain the young man. She refused, and as the slave ran away, the overseer threw a two-pound weight from the store’s counter. It missed and struck Tubman instead, which she said “broke my skull.” She later explained her belief that her hair – which “had never been combed and … stood out like a bushel basket” – might have saved her life. Bleeding and unconscious, Tubman was returned to her owner’s house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days. She was immediately sent back into the fields, “with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn’t see.” Her boss said she was “not worth a sixpence” and returned her to Brodess, who tried unsuccessfully to sell her. She began having seizures and would seemingly fall unconscious, although she claimed to be aware of her surroundings even though she appeared to be asleep. .
These episodes were alarming to her family who were unable to wake her when she fell asleep suddenly and without warning. This condition remained with Tubman for the rest of her life; Larson suggests she may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of the injury. This severe head wound occurred at a time in her life when Tubman was becoming deeply religious. As an illiterate child, she had been told Bible stories by her mother. The particular variety of her early Christian belief remains unclear, but Tubman acquired a passionate faith in God. She rejected white interpretations of scripture urging slaves to be obedient, finding guidance in the Old Testament tales of deliverance. After her brain trauma, Tubman began experiencing visions and potent dreams, which she considered signs from the divine. This religious perspective instructed her throughout her life.
She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era she retired to the family home in Auburn, NY (sold to her by the abolitionist and US Senator, William H. Seward for $1,200) and worked for women’s suffrage.
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