Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: what we can learn today

In the novel ‘Kindred’ Octavia Butler’s protagonist Dana time travels back from 1976 to antebellum Maryland where she is enslaved. Upon failing her attempt to escape from the plantation, Dana narrates ‘Nothing in my education or knowledge of the future had helped me to escape. Yet in a few years an illiterate runaway named Harriet Tubman would make nineteen trips into this country and lead three hundred fugitives to freedom.’ Although this claim that Tubman assisted ‘three hundred fugitives’ has been highlighted as an inflated estimate, (it now being approximated closer to seventy) this quotation sheds some light onto how remarkable the achievements of Harriet Tubman really were.


In the light of US Black History Month, this article spotlights some of the inspirational things Tubman achieved, looking into what we can still learn from the figure today.


The Underground Railroad


The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses established in the US during the antebellum period, primarily used by African Americans escaping enslavement and travelling north to the free states. The phrase Underground Railroad was first historically recorded in 1831, when an angered enslaver blamed the ‘underground road’ for assisting formerly enslaved Tice Davids in escaping his Kentucky plantation. Through the use of ‘stations’, ‘safe houses’, ‘depots’, and ‘conductors’ the Underground Railroad helped approximately 100,000 formerly enslaved people escape to freedom, people like Harriet Tubman leading the way for many.


However, when compared to the number of 4 million people who remained enslaved in the US upon the outbreak of Civil War, the impact and successes of the Underground Railroad are often undermined. The Underground Railroad’s threat to slavery is evidenced through the introduction of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act: meaning the northern states had a legal obligation to return suspected runaways to the Southern plantations. This act not only prohibited the success of the Underground Railroad (meaning many had to travel all the way to Canada to ensure they would not be recaptured) but also emphasises just how threatened enslavers were by the potential of increasing escapes. Thus, although the Underground Railroad did not succeed in completely destroying the institution of slavery, it not only assisted in freeing an estimated 100,000, but this ‘network of people’ also managed to undermine the institution that the US economy was built on.


The life and achievements of Harriet Tubman


Harriet Tubman was born into and endured enslavement until 1849, when she escaped the plantation at nineteen years old with two of her brothers, who both returned to the plantations before reaching their freedom. Whilst enslaved Tubman was subjected to both physical and psychological abuse, being whipped if the baby she nursed cried, and in 1855 commenting that ‘slavery is the next thing to hell.’ When she was twelve Tubman intercepted a heavy weight that one of the plantation overseers threw at a fugitive, leaving her with permanent damage after her skull was ‘broke.’ Following this early example of Tubman’s desire for justice, she was left having frequent headaches, narcolepsy, vivid dreams, and hallucinations, all of which remained issues throughout the rest of her life. Thus, highlighting how despite repeated setbacks, Tubman continued in her quest for justice and freedom.


After her own ninety-mile journey to freedom, Tubman made an estimated 13 more journeys South to lead her loved ones and friends to Canada and the free northern states. Working as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, Tubman took pride in having ‘never lost a passenger.’ On top of navigating the way for many escapees, Tubman also advised dozens more enslaved people on how to reach their freedom independent of the Underground Railroad. In 1868 Tubman spoke to Sarah Bradford explaining her commitment to helping others escape, commenting ‘I was free, and they should be free.’ Thus, providing some insight into the motivations and actions that gained Tubman the reputation ‘Moses of her people.’


Upon the outbreak of Civil War Tubman was recruited in 1861 to assist at Fort Monroe, she was the only African American volunteer amongst the troops there, working as a nurse, cook and cleaner with other fugitives who had fled captivity and joined the Union side. Two years later when black people were legally allowed to enter the army Tubman became part of an espionage scout group, commanding a team dedicated to finding escape routes for enslaved peoples and assisting them in reaching freedom. On June 2nd 1863 Tubman guided 150 black soldiers with the aim of liberating as many enslaved people as possible, the troop was successful in freeing 750 from captivity. Throughout the war Tubman supplied crucial intelligence on supply routes of Confederate troops, helped liberate enslaved people to form Black Union regiments, and became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in American war history.


Although it took three decades following the end of the Civil War, Tubman was eventually awarded government recognition for her military contributions and was compensated financially. To financially support her philanthropy Tubman sold home-grown produce, and in 1896 she purchased the land adjacent to her home and established the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. Despite being illiterate for the entirety of her life, Tubman also toured New York, Washington D.C., and Boston giving speeches on women’s suffrage and working closely with suffrage leader Susan B Anthony. Having undergone brain surgery to relieve some of the symptoms she suffered from following her early head injury on the plantation, Tubman died in March 1913 from pneumonia.


Nowadays Tubman’s legacy is still being honoured, the US Treasury announcing in 2016 that Harriet Tubman’s image would replace the slaveowner Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a process that current US President Joe Biden is accelerating. Tubman’s actions in overcoming ‘enormous odds to accomplish her goal of Freedom’ and then continuing to help others also achieve this, followed by her crucial contributions to the Civil War have secured her a position as a well known inspirational figure. Harriet Tubman’s story shows courage, perseverance, and commitment to a ‘noble cause’, qualities that we can all take influence from this US Black History Month.


Featured Image: By Oladimeji Odunsi from Unsplash 

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