Writer’s Almanac / http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/
Garrison Keillor, editor
March 10, 2011
A woman known as "Moses" died on this day in 1913. Harriet (Ross)
Tubman was born to slave parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, in
but it was probably around 1820. She was christened Araminta by her
parents, and soon became known as "Minty," though she eventually
renamed herself Harriet after her mother. When she was about five or
six, the slave-owner hired her out as a child-minder. She was whipped
if the baby cried and woke its mother, and one day she received five
whippings before breakfast.
When the 15-year-old Harriet refused one day to help an overseer
restrain a runaway slave, she was hit in the head with a two-pound
weight and was left unconscious without medical care for two days.
Although she recovered, she began suffering from seizures, and
narcolepsy, and also began to have visions and prophetic dreams.
Deeply religious, she viewed these as messages from God.
She married a free man, John Tubman, around 1844, though she was still
a slave. When the plantation owner died in 1849, Harriet escaped, with
two of her brothers. John Tubman stayed behind and eventually
remarried. Using the Underground Railroad and the aid of Quakers,
traveling by night to avoid the slave-catchers, navigating by the
North Star, she made it to
a free woman, until passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made her
a runaway slave once again. The thought of her family left behind in
that a year later, she might return to help her niece's family escape.
Over 10 years and at least 13 trips, Harriet Tubman is believed to
have led some 300 souls out of slavery into freedom in
of her last trips, she brought out her parents, who were by that time
around 70 years old. She used ingenious diversions to avoid being
caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared
to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals
and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave
to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a
newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was
illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were
usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for
Friday nights because "escaped slave" notices couldn't be published
until the following Monday. At one point, the price on her head was as
high as $40,000, but she was never betrayed. She was never captured
and neither were the slaves she led. Years later, she told an
audience, "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight
years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my
train off the track, and I never lost a passenger."
She also served as a cook, a nurse, a scout, and a Union spy during
the Civil War, and though she received commendation for her service,
she was never paid. She described one battle she witnessed
we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the
thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain
falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to
get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."
After the Civil War, she began taking in orphans, the elderly, and the
infirm. In 1903, she bought land adjacent to her home in Auburn, New
York, and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent,
and then transferred the mortgage to the African Methodist Episcopal
continued to travel and speak at suffrage conventions into the early
She and Frederick Douglass had great respect for each other. He wrote
to her in 1868
our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement
at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a
private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. ... The
midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your
devotion to freedom and of your heroism."
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