Who Was Harriet Tubman?
Previously, we discussed Harriet Tubman's views on plays, movies, and shows dramatizing slavery in the United States. Perhaps you've met the Hollywood version of her story, or what I like to call, the reel Harriet.
Now take some time to meet the real Harriet.
Here are 5 traits of Harriet's character, that were all the way REAL.
1. Harriet Was Ambitious
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was born into a world where work was everything. For a slave, work was meant to be the only purpose of life.
But Harriet found her own purpose in the work that she did for others.
It was Harriet's usual work in the kitchens of local hotels and clubhouses that provided the means for which she could travel and liberate her people.
The journalist Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831-1917) wrote extensively on the time she spent in slavery.
She employed the time thus hired in the rudest labors, drove oxen, carted, plowed, and did all the work of 1 man, sometimes earning money enough in a year, beyond what she paid her master, 'to buy a pair of steers,' worth forty dollars. The amount exacted of a woman for her time was fifty or sixty dollars, of a man, one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars.
After leading a party of 11 slaves to freedom in Canada, Harriet helped them to 'earn their bread' chopping firewood in the forest.
Harriet never asks anything for herself, but whenever her people were in trouble, or she felt impelled to go South to guide to freedom friend or brother, or father and mother, if she had not time to work for the money, she was persistent till she got it from somebody...though so timid for herself, she is bold enough when the wants of her race are concerned.
Even when she needed help, Harriet was willing and ready to help others.
2. Harriet Was A Freedom Fighter
Harriet told Bradford:
I reasoned out this in my mind: there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.
Harriet found freedom. But she felt a deep longing to go back and help others to reach freedom as she had.
I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all here.
Harriett became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. She often carried two items on her journey: a revolver, to warn restless travelers from whining, and a bottle of paregoric (opium), to keep the babies from crying.
One account of her travels speaks to her stubborn determination to succeed in the face of great uncertainty.
She would not suffer one of her party to whimper once, about "giving out and going back," however wearied they might be from hard travel day and night.
It is estimated that she made a total of nineteen trips from Canada to the United States and back. In the process, she led more than 300 fugitives to freedom.
Tubman's activities on the Underground Railroad struck fear into the planter elites of Maryland, so much so, that they put out a $40,000 bounty for her capture.
Harriet left her husband because he refused to join her in leaving the plantation. Not only did he call her a fool for thinking they would be sold away just as they had been promised their freedom (as written in the master's will), but Bradford says he 'did his best to betray her, and bring her back after she escaped.'
Sanborn wrote further:
...she traveled back to Maryland for her husband, but she found him married to another woman, and no longer caring to live with her. This, however, was not until two years after her escape...it was not till the fall of 1851 that she found her husband and learned of his infidelity.
This must have been a surprise for her. However, Harriet was on a mission.
She did not give way to rage or grief, but collected a party of fugitives and brought them safely to Philadelphia.
3. Harriet Was a Leader
Before there ever was a "rebel army," Harriet had long entrenched her reputation as 'the woman on whom no one could lay his finger.'
When the drums of battle were heard at Fort Sumter, she was ready.
Hoping to join the war effort, Harriet traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina. She was directed to Hilton Head by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew. There, she met Major-General David Hunter (1802-1886), who employed her as a spy for the Union Army. More specifically, Harriet was at the head of the intelligence service for the Department of the South.
Sanborn called it Montgomery's most successful expedition.
Author Earl Conrad (1912-1986) contends that in actuality, Harriet was in charge and Montgomery was the 'auxiliary leader.'
As 'slave masters skedaddled inland,' crowds of Black men, women, and children 'rushed at full speed for “Lincoln’s gun-boats.”'
The Confederate investigating officer, Captain John F. Lay, reported that the enemy was 'well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country.' Harriet's crew, said Lay, understood well 'the character and capacity of our troops and their small chance of encountering opposition.'
The Commonwealth reported on July 10, 1863:
Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 Black soldiers, under the guidance of a Black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation...The Colonel was followed by a speech from the Black woman, who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation...
This event was significant as it was the first (and 'only,' Conrad contested) military engagement in American history led by a woman.
On June 30, 1868, Harriet wrote Sanborn a letter:
Don't you think we colored people are entitled to some credit for that exploit, under the lead of the brave Colonel Montgomery? We weakened the rebels somewhat on the Combahee River, by taking and bringing away seven hundred and fifty-six head of their most valuable live stock, known up in your region as "contrabands," and this, too, without the loss of a single life on our part, though we had good reason to believe that a number of rebels bit the dust. Of these seven hundred and fifty-six contrabands, nearly or quite all the able-bodied men have joined the colored regiments here.
(It should be noted that former slaves were not always willing to join the war. Sometimes, they were forced to do so.)
4. Harriet Was Well Respected
After the war, Harriet struggled to secure a pension from the U.S. government for her services as a soldier, scout, spy, nurse, and cook. For her four years, she received only $200. She used this money to build a wash-house - something like our modern laundromat. From this establishment, she taught other Black women how to support themselves washing clothes.
However, Harriet's progress was short-lived. Her project fell apart when Union soldiers started to use her building as a hideout.
Harriet found herself struggling to make ends meet. She wrote appeals to her friends to help her to the compensation she was due. Several of her superiors officers vouched for her.
Montgomery called her 'a most remarkable woman, and valuable as a scout.'
For nearly two years, Harriet worked as a nurse in Virginia hospitals.
Henry R. Durrant, the medical officer in charge of “contrabands,” said that what he remembered most about Nurse Harriet was 'her kindness and attention to the sick and suffering of her own race.'
These letters were submitted to Congress in 1887. It was not until 11 years later that Harriet was finally granted 20 dollars a month, which was 5 dollars below her initial petition. (This fact was recognized by a resolution passed by the U.S. senate in 2002.)
Harriet received many tributes to her legacy while she was still alive.
Bradford herself saw Harriet Tubman as a heroine of heroines.
[Harriet] has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of these women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called "Moses" for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.
To help raise funds for Harriet's parents, struggling to pay the bills, Bradford solicited support from prominent acquaintances of her dear friend, Harriet.
Later, on, when Harriet wanted to build 'a hospital for old and disabled colored people,' she turned to Sarah Bradford. Once more, letters poured in from all across the country. These were published in Bradford's second biography Harriet, the Moses of her people (1886).
Philips is remembered as the foremost orator of the movement for abolition.
As he recollected, John Brown referred to 'General Tubman' as 'one of the best and bravest persons on this continent.' Sanborn says Brown called her 'a better officer than most whom he had seen, and [she] could command an army as successfully as she had led her small parties of fugitives.'
As secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Charities, Sanborn wrote:
I regard her as, on the whole, the most extraordinary person of her race I have ever met.
England's Queen Victoria was so impressed by the stories she heard about Harriet Tubman that around the year 1897, she sent her a silk shawl.
Silk-lace-and-linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria
donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture by historian Charles L. Blockson in 2010
(Source: Washington Post)
5. HARRIET WAS a Hero To All People
Frederick Douglass wrote this letter to Harriet:
The difference between us is very marked.
Even after her long and storied career, Harriet continued to work on behalf of the aged, the maimed, and the impoverished in her community. She opened her own house as a nursing home and single-handedly funded two Freedmen's Schools, providing books, clothing, and teachers.
Slaves of all shades were under her care and guidance.
Bradford closes her narrative by saying that the most racist of slaveholders could not escape the shadow of her sympathy.
Harriet's charity for all the human race is unbounded. It embraces even the slaveholder - it sympathizes even with Jeff. Davis, and rejoices at his departure to other lands, with some prospect of peace for the future.
Harriet told Bradford about how she prayed for her own "master," that God would 'convert' his heart. She prayed for him even as she was sick in bed.
"...Den I heard dat as soon as I was able to move I was to be sent with my brudders, in the chain-gang to de far South.
Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia at home in the company of her friends and family members on March 10, 1913.
On June 13, 1914, upon the unveiling of a tablet in her honor, Booker T. Washington delivered an address in which he said this:
Harriet Tubman was a unique and great character of which [people of] any race and any age should be proud.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Read more about the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman from Conrad's Harriet Tubman: Negro Soldier and Abolitionist, first published in 1942, his book Harriet Tubman, first published by Carter G. Woodson in 1943, and his article "I bring you General Tubman," published in the Journal of Black Studies and Research in 1970.
Conrad's extensive research on the life of Harriet Tubman can be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library
and at the University of Oregon Libraries.
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.