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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913): The "Moses" of Her People

(Intro Note: In celebration of Black History Month, the month of February, I wish to share with you something about this extraordinary African American who helped liberate her people to freedom. Luckily, while rummaging through my "literary" files, I did find this researched article that I prepared way back in 1999 while I got so interested in learning more about biographies of some interesting African Americans in the United States, like George Washington Carver who I featured in one of my previous blog posts.)

Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous women in Black History of the United States. She was a skilled military leader, a compassionate nurse, a committed abolitionist, and a wonderful woman who cared very much about human beings. She became well-known as the "Moses" of her people.

Born into slavery around 1820, in Dorchster County, Maryland, on the Brodas plantation, Harriet was the sixth of the eleven children of Benjamin and Harriet "Old Rit" Ross. Her parents were slaves of a plantation owner named Edward Brodas.

When she was born, Harriet was named Araminta Ross. Her parents nicknamed her "Minta." But as she grew older, when was called Harriet after her mother.

When she was very young, Harriet served as a field hand and house servant. She ran errands for Mr. Brodas and his family. Because of her young age and her inexperience at housework, she made all kinds of mistakes. And she was punished all the time. She was also hired out to work for others. She was often treated cruelly. Despite all the hardships, "Minta" grew up to be a strong worker. By eleven, she was sweating in the fields, a bright bandana tied around her head to signify that she was longer a child.

Harriet dreamed of freedom. Names of slaves who had run away were whispered around the slaves quarters. One man, Tice Davis, swam across the Ohio Rivers from Kentucky. Harriet overheard his owner say: "He must be gone on an underground railroad!" She was puzzled and kept on asking herself if there was some sort of magical railroad that brought people north to freedom?

One autumn day when Harriet was about fifteen, she witnessed an escape. A young slave slipped away from the field. The overseer---someone paid for to watching slaves so that they would work hard and not to escape---followed him in hot pursuit. Harriet ran after the two to see what would happen next. She followed them into the village store. The overseer ordered Harriet to help him catch the runaway. Instead, she blocked the doorway. As the slave ran away, the overseer, in a rage, grabbed a heavy weight from the scales on the counter and hurled it to him. The overseer missed and the weight hit Harriet on her forehead. She was knocked down unconscious, bleeding from a huge gash. For months, she lay in bed without moving. Old Rit, her mother, nursed her. The next spring Harriet recovered, but for the rest of her life suffered from horrible headaches. Sometimes she would unexpectedly fall into deep sleeps from which she could not be awakened for hours. She wore the large scar on her forehead like a badge of courage.

Harriet's father, Ben Ross, taught her many things about survival as a which plants were edible, how to use the stars as a navigational system, and about animals. This early knowledge on survival helped her a great deal especially when she later worked as a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad, and a spy for the Union troops during the Civil War.

In 1844, Harriet met John Tubman, a free black man. They lived in small cabin by themselves. In those time, slaves were not forbidden to marry free blacks. But the slaves were still owned by the masters after any marriages.

Over the years, Harriet never stopped dreaming about freedom. Over and over in her head she planned how she would escape north to freedom. John Tubman, her husband, just laughed at her and even warned that he would turn her in if she tried. Harriet was sad and hurt.

In the fall of 1849, Harriet learned that she and her brothers were to be sold to a Georgia trader. So, she prepared to escape. With a prayer in her heart, she began her journey on the Underground Railroad. For weeks she slept by day and traveled by night. She walked until her feet bled.  She hid in hystacks, barns, and attics.

Each night, Harriet looked to the North Star for direction. After traveling nearly ninety miles, she finally reached her freedom in Pennsylvania. She crossed the state line at dawn.

In Philadelphia, she found work as hotel cook, met new friends, and spent many hours with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group of abolitionists---men, women, white and black who believed that slavery should be abolished. They set up meetings to help runaway slaves or fugitives. She promised then and there to help bring her family and other slaves escape to freedom and to welcome them to a new home in the North.

Harriet saved her money from working as a cook and used it to bring slaves to freedom in the South. She went back to the Brodas plantation to get her husband John Tubman. But, she was heartbroken to learn that her husband had married another woman. Hurt and angry, she gathered a handful of slaves who wanted to be free and took them north instead. This was the first of many groups of strangers she led to freedom.

When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Harriet realized that no ex-slave could be truly safe anywhere in the United States. So, in 1852, she led all her fugitives all the way to Canada. And, for the next six years, Harriet spent winters in the city of St. Catherines, Ontario, and summers in New Jersey. In spring and fall she headed to Maryland to lead more slaves.

In 1857, she rescued her parents from slavery to St. Catherines, in Canada, then ultimately to Auburn, New York where they lived out their lives in freedom.

In 1858, she spoke at an anti-slavery rally in Boston. She discussed in detail the difficulties and hardships of her many trips along the Underground Railroad. Since then, she had been speaking about slavery across Massachusetts.

When Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet found her next mission at the Union Army. She worked as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy. But she could not resist taking more active participation. On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman led a raid on the Combahee River in which some 750 slaves were freed.

When Civil War ended, United States approved the Thirteenth Amendment officially freeing all slaves. For the first time in her life, Harriet Tubman was a woman without a mission.

But Harriet found a new one. Women were not allowed to vote at all time, and a group of suffragists had formed a movement to fight this basic human right. She became one of the movement's most respected supporters and speakers.

Harriet took care of her aging parents and helped raised money for newly-freed slaves. Sarah Hopkins volunteered to help raise money by writing Harriet Tubman's biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. The book was published in 1869 and Harriet used the money from the sale of the book to pay off the mortgage on her Auburn home.

In the spring of 1869, Harriet Tubman remarried. She lived with her husband, Nelson Davis, until 1888 when he died of tuberculosis. In the meantime, both of Harriet's parents had died sometime in the 1870s. Both were in their 100s.

In 1886, Sarah Bradford published a second edition of her book about Harriet Tubman called HARRIET, THE MOSES OF HER PEOPLE. Harriet used the money from this book to set up an old-age home. In 1908, she donated her home and some land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for use as a home for the sick.

Harriet Tubman died peacefully on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.-chris a. quilpa, 15February2012

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