Thursday, March 10, 2011

On this day in 1913 Harriet Tubman died

Writer’s Almanac /

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

Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact year of her birth is uncertain,

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 Philadelphia and enjoyed a brief period as

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

Maryland haunted her, and she worked odd jobs and saved her money, so

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 Canada. On one

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: "And then

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

Zion Church. Though this was her final major humanitarian project, she

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: "Most that I have done and suffered in the service of

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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