Social Reformer. A fugitive slave and abolitionist leader during a period of profound racial, social, and economic upheaval in the United States, she became known as the most famous guide of the Underground Railroad, a secret network that during the mid-1800s helped slaves escape to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. Nicknamed the "Moses of her people," she was never caught and she never lost a slave to the Southern militia. Standing only five feet tall and suffering from sudden sleep seizures because of a head injury received as a child, Tubman nevertheless possessed the courage and resolve to face physical danger many times while pursuing freedom for her people in nineteenth-century America. Originally named Araminta Ross, she was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County near Cambridge, Maryland, about 1820, one of eleven children of Benjamin and Harriet (Greene) Ross who provided a loving and nurturing environment for their children. They shared with their children a strong religious faith and love of African American folklore. Her father taught her a knowledge of the woods that later helped her in her rescue missions. Tubman's grandparents on both sides had come to America in chains from Africa. At age eleven Tubman adopted her mother's name. Unlike some slaves who were sold to landowners in the deep South, Tubman experienced relative stability while growing up. From her early childhood she had to work as a weaver, maid, child's nurse, and even field hand for neighboring families who hired her services from her owner, Edward Broadas. At age thirteen while working in the field one day for a farmer named, Barrett, a fellow slave left his field work early and went to a general store. The overseer caught up with the man and started to bind him for a whipping. The slave suddenly bolted out the door, however, and as he ran away, Tubman tried to shield him. She was knocked unconscious with a fractured skull when the enraged overseer threw a two-pound weight at the escaping slave. The injury to her head was quite serious, and although she eventually recovered, Tubman suffered for the rest of her life from recurring seizures that plunged her into unconsciousness without warning. In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free African American from the Cambridge area. Little is known about her relationship with her husband and they had no children, but there are reports that he was not an ambitious man and that he thought his wife worried too much about her condition as a slave. Though Tubman was illiterate, she had a probing mind especially in regard to the legal status of blacks. She soon discovered that one of her mother's owners, Mary Patterson, had died young and unmarried, leaving no provisions for her. A lawyer told Tubman that her mother therefore unknowingly was legally free at the time. This information further embittered Tubman toward the institution of slavery and the legal and social system that supported it. From 1847 to 1849 she worked for Dr. Anthony Thompson, Jr., a physician, real estate speculator, and Methodist clergyman. The death of her owner, young Brodas, in 1849 gave rise to rumors that she and his other slaves were to be sold south, and rather than face this prospect, she soon broke for freedom, alone and unaided, and made her way to Philadelphia. "I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming," Tubman later remembered. "I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom." She missed her family and immediately set into motion a plan to rescue them. Finding work as a cook and domestic, Tubman saved her wages to finance her repeated trips into Maryland to free her relatives and others which eventually lead to the freedom of @ 70 slaves. Her missions were extremely dangerous and demanded great strength and endurance, both physically and mentally. Tubman often disguised herself as an old woman to aid her in her daring missions and her familiarity with the Bible as well as the music and folklore of the day allowed her to use religious scriptures and songs as a kind of code that alerted slaves to her presence, signaled danger, or let them know when it was safe to come out of hiding. She possessed leadership qualities that were quickly recognized by men and women she escorted to freedom and the abolitionists with whom she worked with. In addition to her commanding presence, Tubman made up for her small stature by carrying a long rifle and threatened to kill anyone who tried to turn back or stop her. By 1857 she had freed her entire family, including her aging parents. This all brought Tubman in contact with prominent abolitionists in the North including John Brown, William H. Seward, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Alcott family. These individuals supported Tubman's work financially and welcomed her into their homes when she needed shelter. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 which made freedom precarious even for African Americans living in the North. Tubman was forced to began leading slaves into Canada, where they enjoyed complete safety under protection of Great Britain. From 1851 to 1857, Tubman lived intermittently in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She then moved to Auburn, New York, and settled there permanently with her parents after the Civil War. During the Civil War, Tubman broadened the scope of her activities serving as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army in South Carolina. During one military campaign, she helped free more than 750 slaves. She also taught newly-freed blacks how to become self-sufficient. After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn and devoted herself to those she felt needed her help the most-children and the elderly. She cared for her parents, raised funds for schools, for former slaves, collected clothes for destitute children, found housing for the elderly and assisted the poor and disabled. She worked closely with African American churches that had raised money for the Underground Railroad and provided overnight shelter for runaway slaves. With her characteristic penchant for action, Tubman purchased twenty-five acres of land adjoining her house in 1896. Seven years later, with the help of the AME Zion Church, she built the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. It officially opened its doors in 1908. She also remarried after the war. Her first husband, John Tubman, did not join her after she fled to freedom, and he died in 1867. In 1869 she married Nelson Davis, twenty-two years her junior and a former slave who had served in the Union Army. The marriage lasted twenty years until his death. Despite the acclaim that had come Tubman's way as a result of her Underground Railroad activities, she always had to struggle against poverty. Tubman used the proceeds from the 1886 book Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People to help pay off her farm. She spent the last two years of her life as a resident of her own home (which is now a national landmark) for the aged poor, where she died of pneumonia at about ninety-three years old on March 10, 1913. Tubman was buried with military honors. A year later, the residents of Auburn held a memorial service, at which time a tablet was unveiled that paid tribute to her accomplishments. As the personification of strength and the quest for freedom, Tubman is an enduring figure among United States heroes. During World War II, a liberty ship was christened the Harriet Tubman in her honor. In 1978, the U. S. Postal Service issued a Harriet Tubman commemorative stamp. And poets, artists, and musicians continue to express their admiration of this unassuming yet courageous woman who led so many to freedom and helped undermine the institution of slavery.
Bio by: Curtis Jackson
To The Memory of
Harriet Tubman Davis
Heroine of the Underground Railroad
Nurse and Scout in the Civil War
"Servant of God, Well Done"
Erected by the
Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs
July 5, 1937