Photo of chains by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

Harriet Tubman (1821-1913) was born around 1821.  Her ancestors were probably from what is now Ghana. She began her slave work when she was five years old. She learned some of the Bible stories from her mother which gave her a strong faith in God. She was drawn more to the Old Testament since what she learned from the New Testament was focused on obedience to her “master.”

As a child Tubman was beaten often and suffered a severe head injury which caused seizures and visions throughout her life. She was married around 1844 to John Tubman who was a free man. Since she was still a slave and it was the mother’s status which dictated the situation of any children born to such a couple, the free status of her husband did little to alter Tubman’s life.

Sometime after her marriage to Tubman her master died His widow began to make arrangements to sell the family’s slaves. Tubman decided not to wait her owner to decide her fate. “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to,” she explained later, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Tubman, along with her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped on September 17, 1849. As they began their journey north, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts, and the three turned back. `But soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, this time alone. She used the Underground Railroad to make her way north, and traveled at night, guided by the North Star. Once she crossed into Pennsylvania she felt she was free.

Once free, Tubman worked odd jobs, saved money, and continued to return to the slave states to free others, and was assisted by others, particularly those who were Quakers who opposed slavery. She worked alongside Frederick Douglass in the struggle against slavery. During her lifetime she led over a hundred slaves to freedom.

Harriet Tubman often spoke of “consulting with God”, and trusted that He would keep her safe She made use of spirituals as coded messages, warning fellow travelers of danger or to signal a clear path. Despite the enormous efforts of the slaveholders, Tubman was never captured, nor were the fugitives she led to freedom.

When the Civil War broke out Tubman saw a Union victory would be a strong step toward the abolition of slavery. At first Lincoln was not prepared to enforce emancipation on the southern states. Tubman had this to say:

“God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing” Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That’s what master Lincoln ought to know.

Tubman severed as a nurse during the war When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Tubman considered this an important step toward the liberation of all caught up in the evil of slavery. For more than two years she worked for the Union forces, tending to newly liberated slaves, scouting into Confederate territory and nursing wounded soldiers. She received little compensation for all these efforts.

After the war, Tubman spent her remaining years in Auburn and died of pneumonia in 1912. She was buried in Auburn.

This film illustrates the life of Harriet Tubman.

Excerpt from the on-line course: Holy Women of History