Tom Shakespeare

Never having received appropriate recognition in life, after death, Harriet Tubman became an African American icon and a hero to later generations of Civil Rights activists. Her concrete achievements in war and peace, and her struggles on behalf of African Americans and women in particular, surely make her someone that disabled people can also call a role model.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, and was originally named Araminta Ross. Her grandmother, Modesty, had been brought from Africa – according to the family legend, she was of Ashanti origin, from what is modern day Ghana. Tubman’s father managed the timber on a plantation; her mother was a cook. She herself was hired out as a nursemaid aged five or six, and was brutally whipped by her employers.As a teenager, she was in a store when a white man asked her to help restrain another slave. She refused, and when the slave ran away, the white man threw a two pound weight. The iron lump missed the other slave but hit Tubman in the head. She survived the resulting injury, but it caused her siezures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Perhaps as a result of the epilepsy, she became very deeply religious, and regularly thereafter had visions and premonitions.

In 1844, Tubman married a freed slave, John Tubman, and changed her name, although remaining enslaved. In 1849, when her owner died, she and her brothers escaped from slavery, only to return. Tubman then escaped again, using the Underground Railway network of abolitionists (including Quakers) to travel north, mainly by night. She later described her feelings on reaching Pennsylvania: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Although she was safe in Philadelphia, she said “I was a stranger in a strange land,” because her relatives were enslaved in Maryland, “But I was free, and they should be free.” Tubman returned to Maryland to help members of her family escape slavery, then other African Americans, including eventually her own parents. In total, she made 13 expeditions, rescuing 70 slaves, and advising many more on how to make their escape. Often disguised, she became known as “Moses”. On one trip, she was able to meet up with her husband, only to find that he had remarried and did not want to come North with her. She reflected later “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Harriet Tubman was in touch with other abolitionists, such as John Brown, Thomas Garrett and William SewardIn 1859, Seward sold her land in Auburn, which became a haven for freed slaves and other African Americans.

Tubman was also in touch with African American activists, such as Frederick Douglass. In 1868, Douglass wrote to Tubman to honor her practical achievements and contrast it with his more public advocacy: “You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”

For obvious reasons, Harriet Tubman was a strong supporter of the Union side during the Civil War, although she was frustrated by Abraham Lincoln’s unwillingness to enforce emanacipation in conquered Confederate territory. She went to offer her support in Port Royal, South Carolina, serving as a nurse. More unusually, for the time, she also conducted reconnaissance missions for the Union forces, for example providing information which helped in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida.She became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War during the Combahee River Raid which led to the release of 700 slaves.Despite these efforts, she never received any acknowledgement or pension from the United States government for her service during the conflict.

After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn. More injustice followed when, on a trip to New York, she was roughly handled by a train guard and other white passengers, resulting in her arm being broken. Happily, she also ended up marrying a veteran, Nelson Davis, who was more than twenty years younger than her. They were together for twenty years and adopted a daughter together. But Tubman remained poor and struggled for money, particularly after falling victim to two fraudsters. In her later years, she was an active supporter of women’s suffrage, and in the process of speaking and advocating, her own story became more widely known.

Harriet Tubman suffered increasing symptoms from her head injury in the last decades of her life, undergoing brain surgery to relieve her suffering.In 1903, she donated land to her church to open a home for poor African Americans. It was there that in 1913 she died of pneumonia, being buried with full military honours in Auburn. Booker T.Washington spoke at the inauguration of her memorial.