Harriet Tubman was barely 5ft tall and didn’t have a dime to her name.
What she had was a deep faith and a powerful passion for justice that was fueled by a network of black and white abolitionists determined to end slavery in America.
“I had reasoned that out in my mind,” Tubman once said an interviewer. “There was one of two things I was entitled to, freedom or death. If I couldn’t have one, I would have the other; because no one will take me alive.
It’s only by modern times that his life receives fame it deservesmost notably her likeness appearing on a US$20 bill in 2030. The Harriet Tubman $20 bill will replace the current one with a portrait of US President Andrew Jackson.
In another recognition, Tubman was accepted in June 2021 in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She is one of 278 members, including 17 women, honored for their leadership in special operations and intelligence work.
Although traditional accolades eluded Tubman for most of her life, she earned an honor typically reserved for white officers on the Civil War battlefield.
After leading a successful raid on a Confederate outpost in South Carolina that saw 750 black people rescued from slavery, a white commander fetched a pitcher of water for Tubman as she sat at a table.
A different education
Believed to have been born in March 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was named Araminta by her slave parents, Rit and Ben Ross.
“Minty” was the fifth of nine Ross children. She was frequently separated from her family by her white slaver, Edward Brodess, who began renting her out to white neighbors when she was just 6 years old.
In their hands, she suffered physical violencehard work, poor diet and intense loneliness.
As I learned during my research on Tubman’s life, his upbringing did not take place in a traditional classroom, but was instead crafted from the dirt. She learned to read the natural world – forests and fields, rivers and swamps, clouds and stars.
She learned to walk in silence through the fields and through the woods at night with no light to guide her. She searched for food and learned a botanist’s and chemist’s knowledge of edible and poisonous plants – and which ones are most useful as ingredients in medical treatments.
She could not swim, which forced her to learn the way of rivers and streams – their depths, their currents and their traps.
She studied people, learned their habits, observed their movements – all without being noticed. More importantly, she also figured out how to distinguish the character. His survival depended on his ability to remember every detail.
After a brain injury left her with recurring crises, she was able to continue to exercise trades often reserved for men. She toiled at the shipping docks and learned the secret communications and transportation networks of black sailors.
Known as black jacks, these men traveled the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast. With them she studied the night sky as well as the placement and movement of the constellations.
She used all of these skills to navigate both water and land.
“…and I prayed to God,” she told a friend, “to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve prayed for ever since.”
Tubman was clear on his mission. “I should fight for my freedom,” she told one admirer, “as long as my strength lasted.”
The Moses of the Underground Railroad
In the fall of 1849, when she was about to be sold to her family and free husband John Tubman, she fled Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia.
Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to the east coast of Maryland approximately 13 times and successfully rescued nearly 70 friends and family members, all of whom were enslaved. This was an extraordinary feat given the perils of the Fugitive Slave Act 1850which allowed anyone to capture and bring back any black man or woman, regardless of legal status, into slavery.
These leadership qualities and survival skills earned him the nickname “Moses” because of his work on the Underground Railroadthe interracial network of abolitionists that enabled black people to escape slavery in the South to freedom in the North and in Canada.
As a result, she attracted influential abolitionists and politicians who were struck by her courage and determination – men like William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Susan B. Anthonyone of the world’s leading campaigners for equal rights for women, also knew Tubman, as did the abolitionist Lucrece Mott and women’s rights activist Amy Post.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years,” Tubman said. “and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I have never had my train derailed and I have never lost a passenger.
When civil war begun in the spring of 1861, Tubman put aside his struggle against slavery to fight as a soldier and spy for the United States Army. She offered her services to a powerful politician.
He arranged for her to travel to Beaufort, South Carolina, to work with army officers in charge of the recently captured prison. Hilton Head neighborhood.
There she provided nursing care to the soldiers and the hundreds of newly liberated people crowding into the Union camps. Tubman’s skill in curing soldiers stricken with a variety of illnesses has become legendary.[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]
But it was her military spy service and scouting behind Confederate lines which earned him the highest praise.
She recruited eight men and together they skillfully infiltrated enemy territory. Tubman made contact with local slaves who secretly shared their knowledge of Confederate movements and plans.
Distrustful of white Union soldiers, many local African Americans trusted and respected Tubman.
According to George Garrisona second lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, Tubman got “more intelligence from them than anyone else”.
In early June 1863, she became the first woman in United States history to command an armed military raid when she guided Colonel James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina Colored Volunteer Regiment along the Combahee River.
While they were there they routed Confederate outpostsdestroyed cotton, food, and arms stores—and freed over 750 slaves.
The Union victory was widely celebrated. Boston Wisconsin newspapers reported storming the river by Montgomery and his Black Regiment, noting Tubman’s important role as “Black she Moses…who led the raid, and under whose inspiration it was created and conducted.”
Ten days after the successful attack, radical abolitionist and soldier Francis Jackson Merriam saw Maj. Gen. David Hunter, Hilton Head District Commander, “fetch a jug of water and wait with it in his hand while a black woman was drinking, as if he had been one of her own servants.
In this letter to Governor Andrewadded Merriam, “that woman was Harriet Tubman.”
Struggle of a lifetime
Although he received praise as a valuable scout and soldier, Tubman still faced racism and sexism in post-Civil War America.
When she asked to be paid for her spy services, the US Congress denied his request. Ity paid for the eight black scouts, but not her.
Unlike the Union officers who knew her, members of Congress did not believe – they could not imagine – that she had served his country like the men under her, because she was a woman.
General Rufus Saxton wrote that he testified “to the value of her services…She was employed in the Hospitals and as a spy [and] made many raids inside enemy lines with remarkable courage, zeal and loyalty.
Thirty years later, in 1899, Congress granted him a pension for her service as a Civil War nurse, but not as a spy soldier.
When she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913, she would have been 91 and had fought for gender equality and the right to vote as a free black woman for more than 50 years after her work for civil war.
Surrounded by friends and family, the deeply religious Tubman showed one last sign leadership, saying to them, “I will prepare a place for you.