On This Day: Harriet Tubman Claims Her Gods Given Freedom

Okay, On this Yesterday, not today.  Close enough. 😉

Accounts differ on just when the woman we would come to know as Harriet Tubman was born.  One report, based on a midwife payment and reports made at the time of Tubman’s escape suggests sometime in March of 1822.  Other dates given include 1815, 1820, and 1825.  In any case, the woman we would come to know as Harriet Tubman was born Aramenta “Minty” Ross to parents Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, who were slaves in the American South.  No one really knows what part of Africa her ancestors came from or from what ethnic groups.  Tubman was once told that she looked like an Ashanti person (from the Ashanti region of modern-day Ghana) but this was purely conjecture based on physical appearance.

Tubman grew up with her parents on a plantation near the Blackwater River in Dorchester County, Maryland.  There, her mother faced the struggle of attempting, and often failing, to keep her family together.  One by one Harriet’s older sisters–Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph–were sold.  A Georgia trader approached the owner about buying Tubman’s youngest brother, Moses.  Rit hid him, with the assistance of other slaves and free blacks in the community, for a month.  Eventually, the owner and the trader came to Rit’s dwelling to seize the boy.  Rit is reported to have told them that she would split the skull of the first one through the door.  The owner backed away and abandoned the sale.

Historians generally agree that this event instilled in Harriet the idea that slavery could be resisted.

While Rit worked in “the big house” Harriet had responsibility for a younger brother and a baby, as was typical of large families of the time.  By the time she was five or six, she was hired out as a nursemaid to “Miss Susan.” There, she was given charge of the care of an infant and, among other things, to rock its cradle while it slept.  When the baby woke and cried, as babies are wont to do, Harriet was whipped.  On one occasion she was whipped five times before breakfast.

Harriet carried the scars of those whippings all the days of her life.

Harriet did not simply accept these indignities as her lot in life.  She found ways to resist, wearing extra layers of clothing as some protection against beatings, once running away for five days, even fighting back.

After her period with “Miss Susan”, Harriet was given other tasks.  These included checking muskrat traps, and as she grew older and stronger, this included field work, driving oxen, plowing, and hauling logs.

When Harriet was an adolescent, another slave attempted to flee.  The overseer threw a two-pound heavy weight at the fleeing slave and, missing, hit Harriet in the head.  The blow reportedly fractured her skull.  The bleeding and unconscious Harriet was carried inside and left on the seat of a loom.  For two days she lay there, without any kind of medical care.

Harriet recovered from the injury but suffered permanent issues.  She suffered lifelong frequent headaches and a tendency to fall into a state where she appeared to be asleep but, according to her own reports, was aware of what transpired around her.  She also started particularly vivid dreams and visions which she interpreted as revelation from God.  And while she was devoutly Christian, she rejected the interpretation many had of New Testament teachings that slaves should be obedient, preferring instead Old Testament tales of deliverance from bondage.

The owner of Harriet’s father had promised to manumit Ross at age 45 and, when the owner died, his son and heir followed through on the promise.  Ross hired a lawyer to look into the legal status of Rit.  The lawyer found a similar provision for her, that she too was to be manumitted at age 45 and that any children born after that age would be born free.  Unfortunately, Rit’s owner ignored those provisions.  Thus, Rit and her children remained slaves.

Aroung 1844 Harriet married free black man John Tubman.  Such marriages were not uncommon in that region, where about half the black population was free.  Sometime after the marriage Harriet changed her name from her birth name of “Araminta” to the one we all came to know her by, “Harriet.”

In 1849 Harriet fell ill once again.  Since this reduced her value as a slave, her owner tried to sell her but could not find a buyer.  The attempt to sell her away from the family she had in Maryland along with keeping her other relatives in bondage justifiably angered Harriet.  However, with her Christian ideals she started with praying that the owner would change his ways.  When her owner continued to try to sell her she changed her prayer, that if he wouldn’t change his ways, then she asked the Lord to kill him.

A week later, her owner died.

Unfortunately, the death of her owner did not end Harriet’s problems.  The handling of her late owner’s estate increased the risk of Harriet’s family being broken up as individuals were sold off to others.  And while her husband tried to dissuade her, she made up her mind to flee.  Echoing the words of Patrick Henry, she is reported to have said, “There was one of two things I had a right to.  Liberty or Death.  If I could not have one, then I would have the other.”

On September 17, 1849, one hundred and seventy years ago as I write this, Harriet and two of her brothers, escaped.  Strangely enough, her owner did not appear to note that the absence was an escape attempt at once.  It was two weeks before a runaway notice was posted, with a $100 reward for each slave returned.

Apparently, some time after they left, Harriet’s two brothers had second thoughts–perhaps because Ben had just become a father–and returned to the plantation, forcing an unwilling Harriet to return with them.

Despite all, Harriet was unbowed.  She soon escaped again, this time without the brothers who had brought her back before, and making use of the Underground Railroad organized by many anti-slavery individuals, many members of the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) who had long been opposed to slavery on religious grounds.

Hariet never discussed that perilous journey in later life.  At first, she dared not because it would have exposed those still active in helping others escape.  Later, no doubt, she had other things on her mind.  The journey would have taken several weeks but in the end she crossed into Pennsylvania and freedom.  Never again, would she be slave.

Unfortunately, the safety of the northern free states proved ephemeral.  Congress soon passed the Fugitive Slave Acts, requiring escaped slaves found in the North to be returned to their owners in the South.  However, that risk must have seemed small indeed to Harriet Tubman as far from simply taking her own freedom, her thoughts turned to those of her family, and others, still enslaved in the South.

In 1850, learning that her niece Kessia and Kessia’s two daughters were to be sold at auction in Cambridge, Harriet snuck back into Maryland to be hidden by her brother-in-law.  When Kessia’s husband, a free black man, made the winning bid for his wife, they managed to sneak away and meet Harriet in Cambridge and Harriet brought them with her to Philadelphia.

The next spring, Harriet returned to Maryland once again to guide members of her family away to the yet uncertain safety of the North.

On her third trip she went to get her husband John Tubman but he had remarried in the interim and did not want to leave.

Thus began her long career.  Again and again she would return to the slave-owning south and help slaves escape to the North, and beyond to Canada (where Fugitive Slave Laws did not reach).

As remarkable as the heroism involved in venturing into the South to help slaves escape to freedom, Harriet did far more.  She aided John Brown in gathering support for his own abolitionist movements.  No one knows where Harriet Tubman was when John Brown made his attack on Harper’s Ferry.  Different historians have ventured different ideas.  Some historians suggest that by this time she had come to share Frederick Douglass’ doubts about Brown’s methods.  And, as we now know, Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in the end failed to bring about the general slave revolt he had hoped for and Brown was charged, tried, convicted, and executed for treason.

And Tubman still was not done.  During the American Civil War she served as a scout for the Union, even accompanying Union forces during the Combahee river raid.

She continued to serve until after the war ended then returned to Auburn, NY where she had a modest home.  In 1869 she remarried to Nelson Davis whom she had met previously while guiding a group of black soldiers in South Carolina.  She lived a relatively quiet life then until her death of pneumonia in 1913.  Well, relatively quiet except for her activism on behalf of women’s suffrage.

She just would not be stopped.

All in all, entirely worthy of being on the $20 bill.  I just wish they would hurry up and release it already.

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