Unsung Heroes: The Life and Legacy of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

American slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil Rights movement have always been, and always will be, popular areas of historical study. Indeed, anyone who has studied secondary school history in the 21st century is more than likely to have touched on these topics at some level, and will therefore be familiar with the names of famous African-American figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and of course, Martin Luther King.

However, in examining the role of individuals on the course African-American history, it is fair to say that the role of female agency has remained relatively understated. With respect to this female contribution, the life of Harriet Tubman deserves far greater discussion outside of the US than it has thus far been granted. On studying the abolition movement in my first year at Durham, I was not only struck by Tubman and her Underground Railroad’s remarkable contribution to abolitionism, but also by the fact that this was the first time I had heard her story told. Ultimately, it is wrong that I should be writing about Harriet Tubman as an “unsung” heroine in history, a heroine that overcame many an adversity to dedicate herself to the liberation of her people.

Tubman was born into the institution of slavery on a plantation bordering the Blackwater River in Maryland, 1822. After 27-years of hardship on the plantation, Tubman opted to take her chance and escape the shackles of bondage. On the 17th September 1849, the Cambridge Democrat, reported news of her runaway effort, accompanied by an advertisement for her capture. Reflecting on this initial act of courage, historian McGowen has commented that “for a woman to attempt an escape alone was either brave or foolhardy”. Ultimately, whether brave, foolhardy, or a combination of the two, Tubman’s successful runaway represents the first of a long list of instances demonstrating her willingness to challenge the framework of slavery regardless of the cost. Indeed, Tubman subsequently explained that “there was one of two things I had the right to – liberty or death”, an attitude which motivated her abolitionist efforts throughout her lifetime.It would seem that the mix of emotions facing the ex-slave on crossing the Mason-Dixy line later that year had an important influence of Tubman’s attitude to her liberty. Whilst she recalled feeling “such a glory over everything”, she crucially recognised that she was now “a stranger in a stranger’s land”. For Tubman, her own freedom had little value if she had no one to share it with.

Therefore, Tubman’s first step was to free her family back in Maryland. It should be emphasised that given the initial risk incurred with securing her own freedom, along with the recent passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, returning to her own slave state was fundamentally perilous and therefore reflective of the selflessness of Tubman in her actions. Tubman corresponded with the husband of her niece, John Bowley, through a series of underground letters in order to devise a plan for their escape. The plan was put into action at a slave auction, in which Bowley put in the highest bid for his wife and family, allowing them time to smuggle onto a log canoe and travel down to Baltimore where Tubman was waiting. From this point onwards, Tubman continued to devote herself to the freeing of slaves through her ‘underground railroad’ operation.

Harriet Tubman with her family and other rescued slaves.

Running between Philadelphia and St. Catherine’s Church in Canada, historians estimate that between the years 1851-53, Tubman used the railroad to conduct up to 19 journeys, and rescue between 70-300 slaves. Key to her success was a balance of rigorousness in her cooperation with slaves, and ingenuity in her methods. In light of the risk Tubman herself incurred through pursuing these runaway efforts, she expected absolute compliance from the slaves she was assisting, and was known to say that “they had to go through [with the runaway] or die”. Such assertiveness was matched by her innovative techniques to great effect. To name but one example, Tubman sang traditional slave songs as a method of communication with potential runaways, with the songs “Go Down Moses” and “I’m Bound for the Promised Land” being particular favourites of Tubman as a means of indicating her arrival. Ultimately, the importance of Tubman’s ‘Underground Railroad’ system lay in the physical challenge it presented to the future of southern slavery in the US. In line with McGowen’s conclusion that Tubman advocated ‘action rather than words’, we must acknowledge that the former was vital in undermining the authority of slave masters, thus bringing into question the long-term survival of the institution.

Tubman’s contributions to abolitionism did not end with the outbreak of Civil War in April 1861. On the contrary, Tubman continued to defy the traditional limitations placed on both African-Americans and women. In 1863, she became the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition, operating alongside Colonel James Montgomery in an armed raid on rice plantations in South Carolina. The raid resulted in the liberation of approximately 700 slaves, marking another significant contribution to the cause on the part of Tubman. The former-slave’s role did not end there. She went onto engage in espionage beyond the Confederacy front-line, and finally ended the war operating as a nurse for the Union Army. Far from just a pre-war activist then, Thomas Allen has aptly summarised Tubman’s status as “one of the great heroines of the Civil War”.

Harriet Tubman on an US dollar bill in 2016.

In 1914, Booker T. Washington commented that “in the tens of millions of black people scattered throughout this country there are many great souls, heroic souls, that the white race does not know about.” In the US, this argument holds far less validity in the 21st century. 2016, for example, saw the printing of Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill, cementing her place in both African-American and wider US history. However, it is my hope that Tubman’s extraordinary legacy will go on to be acknowledged on a global scale by historians and non-historians alike, providing a source of inspiration to all of us to overcome adversities and stay true to our convictions.

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