Profiles of Courage

Harriet Tubman: The First Woman Abolitionist



“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Harriet Tubman was the first woman abolitionist in America and also one of the bravest women of her era. She was celebrated as the “Moses of her time” by her people.

Her story reminds us of the great resilience that sits at the root of humankind, even when suppressed by slavery.

Born as Araminta Ross, Tubman was born into slavery *around* 1820 in Dorchester county, Maryland. Her parents, Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross were both slaves and Harriet was their ninth and last child.
When she was just five years old, Harried *Minty* often tended her siblings while her mother worked in the big house as they called the master’s house. Edward Brodess, Harriet’s enslaver mistreated Harriet: she had scars from her frequent whipping that would never disappear from her skin. When she was hired out to other slave owners, she was forced to work in ice waters to trap muskrats but she would get sick and be returned to her original master because she was deemed lazy and useless.

Harriet was often separated from her mother which left her often feeling lonely and fearful during her childhood.
The invention of the cotton grin led to a fast economic expansion in the south and as cotton plantations grew rapidly, the demand for labor grew enormously. Thousands of slaves from the Eastern shores were torn from their families to go work in the South: Harriet’s sisters Linah, Soph, and Mariah Ritty got sold to out-of-state buyers and left Harriet’s family in grief.

In the late Fall, between 1934 and 1936, Harriet was nearly killed. One evening, she was called to go a local food stores to accompany a cook to buy dry items for the kitchen. When they arrived at the store, Tubman attempted to block a slave overseer from running after a fleeing slave boy. The iron weight fell on Harriet with such force that it fractured her skull and drove fragments of her skull into her brain.

Seven years after the injury, she told a friend:

“I had to work again and there I worked with the blood and sweat rolling down my face till I couldn’t see.”

The severe head injury left her dealing with seizures, headaches, and periods of semi-consciousness for the rest of her life. The injury also led to mystical visions that would stay with her for the rest of her life. It is these mystical experiences that supported her perilous endeavors for the rest of her life:
“God’s time is always near. He gave me my strength and he set the North Star in the heavens; He meant I should be free.”

Thomas Garrett, a renown Underground Railroad agent, later wrote of Tubman:

“I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”

Tubman never had children. She did marry John Tubman, a free man who was also 5 years older than her. Their marriage had no legal standing because Harriet was still owned by Brodess. They had a spiritual ceremony but were not allowed to legally marry. Tubman could have married a free woman as there were many of them in Dorcester county but his love for Harriet moved him to give up his rights as a father and a husband. In 1948, Harriet was about to be sold so she fled from the Poplar Neck plantation with her two brothers but the two young men had second thoughts and returned to the plantation later on.

A newspaper posted a $300 bond as a reward for Harriet and her brothers.
John wasn’t interested in moving up North with Harried and married another woman in the community while she was gone and planning out the liberation of slaves in the South. Freedom felt meaningless to Harriet unless she could help others achieve freedom too so she committed to go back and liberate people. She developed strategies to travel at night and chose backroads, waterways, mountains, and swamps to avoid getting caught. She lived in Philadelphia and cleaned houses in order to save enough money to go back and save slaves. She risked jail every time but never got caught. In a decade, she did 19 rescue missions and liberated around 300 slaves.

In December of 1850, Harriet started working with Frederick Douglas and took her first mission trip guiding a family to their freedom. Her niece, her husband, and their two children were freed from the bondage of slavery.

In early 1862, she went to South Carolina to provide nursing care to black soldiers and newly liberated slaves. She also began spying for General David Hunter behind Confederate lines.

On June 2nd, 1863 she led a company of 150 black union soldiers in the Combahee river raid and liberated hundreds of slaves. She was the only woman to ever lead a military operation during the Civil war.

Tubman believed in the equality of all people, black or white, male or female, which made her sympathetic to the women’s rights movement. Back in 1896, she risked her health to speak at the National Association of Colored Women. She was embraced by the crowd and celebrated as the oldest member of the National Federation of Afro-American Women.

Not only did black women have to deal with the reigning prejudices against their gender but they knew that their race also played against them. Discrimination was more preeminent for black women and significantly affected their rights.

When questioned by a white woman why black women should have the right the vote, Harriet replied, “I suffered enough to believe it.” She continued her fights for women in spite of her golden age: she collected funds for freed people and for their schools, fully aware of the long road ahead of reconstruction.She was extremely modest and rarely requested anything for herself.

When she would request funds, clothes, shelter, or food, it was often for everyone around her first. She struggled with money her entire life and still took care of her parents when she herself was ageing. An example of her modesty was demonstrated on October 23, 1905 when she was traveling to a suffrage meeting in Rochester with her friend Emily Howland.

They parted ways upon arrival at Rochester station and Harriet stood at the station all night because she knew that no establishment would take in a woman of color. The next day, Emily confronted the convention organizers and told them that it was the leadership’s responsibility to provide lodging for women of color who attended future meetings.

According to laws enacted during the seventeenth century in the American colonies, any children born to an enslaved woman were automatically slaves.

She worked as a slave as a child but was determined to gain her freedom ever since she was a young child. As a child, Ross was “hired out” by her master as a nursemaid for a small baby, much like the nursemaid in the picture. Ross had to stay awake all night so that the baby wouldn’t cry and wake the mother. If Ross fell asleep, the baby’s mother whipped her.

Tubman was politically agile and an important national figure as a storyteller representing black women at a time when they were rare on the speaking stage. In Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, historian Kate Clifford Larson shares:

“A great storyteller she was…she moved her audiences deeply. Plainly dressed, very short and petite, quite black-skinned, and missing front teeth, Tubman physically made a stark contrast to Sojourner Truth, one of the most famous former slave women then speaking on the antislavery lecture circuit, who was nearly six feet tall….Like Truth, however, Tubman shocked her audiences with stories of slavery and the injustices of life as a black woman. Tubman and Truth stood for millions of slave women whose lives were marred by emotional and physical abuse at the hands of white men.”

It is my prayer that we will continue to use the privilege of our voices and freedom as Western women to shorten the gap between all women regardless of their skin color.

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