Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whipped and beaten as a child, brutally injured in the head when a teen, Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was an unsinkable woman determined to risk her life for freedom. She did not want it only for herself, but also for her family, friends, and strangers.
No one is certain of the year, but Harriet was born between 1820 and 1825 to Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland. Called “Minty” by her parents, Harriet called herself her given name when she got married.
Three of her sisters were sold to distant plantations. Her father was freed when he turned 45 years old, but he stayed on at the plantation to continue his trade as a timber estimator and foreman. Even though their former owners had deemed Minty’s family to be free after their deaths, there was no power to enforce their wishes; the new slaveholders refused to grant them their freedom.
Cycle of Violence
Minty was hired out when she was only five years old to tend to a baby on another plantation. Taken from her mother, the little girl was forced to live with a violent mistress who was cruel and abusive to her. Not only did Minty labor as a housemaid, but she was ordered not to let the baby cry. To accomplish this, Minty had to hold and rock the infant incessantly. When the baby did cry, Minty’s mistress, Miss Susan, would whip the five-year-old on her neck, scarring her for life. She became weak from not being fed enough by the mistress, so she was sent home.
This cycle continued for Minty; she would be nursed back to health by her mother, only to be hired out again by her owner. She was deeply homesick when away from her family, but as a slave her feelings didn’t matter.
When she turned seven, Minty was rented out to gather muskrats from traps in the creeks and rills, dragging herself outdoors to labor in waist deep water, even when she had the measles. She collapsed from weakness many times, but she always had to return to work after a brief respite. The next year she was working on yet another plantation when she spied a lump of sugar in the mistress’ kitchen. Curious about the taste, the eight-year-old popped it into her mouth. Somehow her mistress discovered what she had done, and Minty was so terrified that she fled from the house and hid in a neighbor’s pigpen, eating scraps for three days.
When Minty turned 12, she grew strong enough to work in the fields. This was fine with her, for she dreaded working for any white woman.
When her overseer sent her on an errand to the grocery store, she saw a runaway slave crouching inside. The man’s overseer stormed in, chasing him around the room. The slave fled out the door, so Minty stood in the doorway to block the overseer from chasing him. He grabbed a metal weight from the counter and threw it at the runaway slave,but it slammed into Minty’s head instead. In her own words, she remembered, “The weight broke my skull and cut a piece of my shawl clean off and drove it into my head. They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all, and they laid me on the seat of the loom, and I stayed there all day and the next.” She healed months later but was considered damaged property. Mr. Brodess, her owner, tried to sell her, but no one wanted to buy a badly injured slave. Thereafter, Minty suffered from spells of deep sleep and vivid dreams all her life.
Crossing the Line
Harriet (Minty) married John Tubman in 1844 and became quite ill. After her owner died, she was afraid about the fate of her family and herself as a weakened slave who was considered of little value. She set her sights on Philadelphia and made plans to take her husband and two brothers with her. John refused to go (he later remarried), so Harriet and her brothers began their journey on September 17, 1849. Her brothers changed their minds when they learned there was a bounty on their heads for $300.
Harriet wanted no part of bondage, so she used the Underground Railroad to travel 90 miles to Philadelphia. When she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania, she said, “When I found that I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
The Underground Railroad was a network of homes and farms that helped runaway slaves travel to freedom. This system provided transportation; the people involved did not know the entire network but just enough to funnel slaves to the next “stations.” If caught, abolitionists helping in the Underground Railroad would be thrown in jail for six months.
The Road to Freedom
Although she could have lived out her life in freedom after her daring escape, when Harriet heard her niece, Kessiah and her family were going to be sold, she made plans to deliver them from their bondage. Kessiah’s husband was a freeman so he bid on his family and won the auction in Baltimore. That didn’t guarantee their freedom, so Harriet made her first trip south to transport people to freedom and became part of the Underground Railroad.
In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, which meant runaway slaves living in the North could be dragged back to their owners. Freed men and former slaves were being abducted and put back in bondage and endured beatings and brutal whippings as punishment. This did not deter Harriet; she returned again and again to rescue slaves, now taking them all the way to Canada, where slavery was against the law. Harriet was called “the Moses” of her people.
Harriet returned 19 times to free others from slavery and never lost a single runaway. Money was sent to her by abolitionists. She initiated most of her escapes on a Saturday, since their owners didn’t work on Sundays and wouldn’t notice their slaves’ absence until Monday. She rested in daylight and moved stealthily at night. Harriet preferred to navigate in the fall and spring, because summer nights were much shorter and winter nights were colder. She traveled over back roads, through fields and mountains, swamps, and creeks. Harriet packed a gun, and always encouraged her companions not to give up. In fact, she would not let them turn back, suggesting she would have to prevent that, saying, “Dead Negroes don’t talk.”
As a freeman, Harriet’s father was under suspicion for harboring runaway slaves. Harriet broke her own rule not to travel during summer and rushed to rescue her parents. Unable to walk long distances, her parents struggled on the journey so Harriet found a carriage and transported them to Canada. Rit found the frigid Canadian winters too harsh; Harriet moved them to Auburn, New York, and made them a home on seven acres she had purchased from her friend William Stewart.
Harriet wanted desperately to rescue her sister, Rachel. When she returned to get her and her two children, Angerine and Ben, she discovered her sister had died and no one knew the whereabouts of the children. Not wanting the trip to be wasted, Harriet found the Ennals family who wanted to escape, but there was a problem; they had a baby which increased the risk of discovery. They gave the infant paregoric (camphorated tincture of opium) to keep her from being heard by bounty hunters. In three weeks they arrived safely in Ontario, Canada.
Free at Last
During the Civil War, Harriet served as a nurse, cook, recruiter, scout, and spy, and used her own home in Auburn to give shelter to runaway slaves. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War when she directed the Combahee River Raid in 1863. The raid freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.Harriet returned to her home in Auburn to care for her parents and help African-Americans start new lives as free people. In 1896 she married Nelson Davis, a Civil War veteran. They adopted an infant and named her Gertie. As she aged, Harriet’s skull injury caused her excruciating pain and produced “buzzing” sounds in her head. Barely coping with the symptoms, she agreed to undergo brain surgery in Boston, which was successful.
As the years passed, Harriet lived in a nursing home named in her honor in Auburn. Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
Phyllis MacLay is a published writer of articles in Country Woman Magazine, Parent Magazine, Easy Street Magazine, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, newspapers. Originally from Pennsylvania, Phyllis moved to Aiken from Texas. She has published children’s plays and her latest novel, A Bone for the Dog, a chilling story of a father trying to rescue his little girl, is available online at www.PhyllisMaclay.com, Booklocker.com, Amazon, and on FB at A Bone for the Dog. … Her latest work … Sweet Brew and a Cherry Cane appears in the anthology Nights of Horseplay by the Aiken Scribblers.