A smuggler, nurse, spy, general and modern-day Moses.
Born, somewhere between 1815 and 1825,
there’s that dicey history we love into plantation life slavery in Maryland on the Eastern Shore, as Araminta Ross, we find ourselves at the start of Harriet Tubman’s life.
In her early childhood, Harriet was often hired out to other households, starting as young as five, as a nursemaid. She would be violently beaten if she let the baby cry. I don’t know if any of y’all know anything about babies but they cry. A lot.
If you’re a white person who goes on about how unfair it is that people of colour hate and make fun of us just remember we kept their ancestors as slaves, dude. We treated them as objects to be owned and not as living, breathing, human beings. Like that’s hella fucked up! They get to hate us for that. Of course, they’re angry, they have every right to be, and your microaggressions are just proof that they still can’t trust us.
Back to Harriet, her poor body was mangled by scars, thanks to her upbringing of daily whipping sessions. See. Until the day our ancestors had to deal with this shit, you don’t get to complain about racism against white people. And reverse-racism is not a fucking thing, for the love of God.
Most notably, Harriet had a gnarly scar on her head from a cracked skull as a teenager, after getting in the way of a lead weight being thrown at another slave. This caused narcoleptic symptoms for her whole life. She also had visions that she ascribed to God, that she credits with allowing her to guide many of her trips to freedom later in life.
I just want you to remember this—she suffered from terrible headaches and seizures for her whole life, and she still did all the kick-ass things she did. Like wow, I’ve got chronic pain and some days I’m lucky to make myself get out of bed. This woman was a warrior.
Harriet eventually married a free black man named John Tubman in 1844 and five years later, at 27, she decided to set herself and her family free.
In 1845, Harriet hired a lawyer to find out her mother’s slave status. Harriet’s father was already free once he turned 45, as stated by his owner’s will. He continued to work for his owner while making extra money by hiring his work out on his days off.
However, Harriet discovered her mother was also legally free but was still being kept as a slave. In fact, a few of Harriet’s siblings were born free as they were born after their mother had turned 45 and her original owner’s will stated the same as her husbands, that she was to be freed at age 45. Her owner, in a huge dickhead move, refused to let her go for free and in the end, Harriet’s father had to buy his own wife, a human being, for $20, in order to free her. Isn’t history grand????
In 1849, Harriet finally took the risk, and she, along with her two brothers, escaped the Poplar Neck Plantation. However, her brothers turned back and returned to the plantation. Harriet left likely by foot via the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia, a free state, without telling the rest of her family. The journey would have been 90 miles, having to avoid slave catchers the whole way.
Now, I have no concept of measurements and distance but I expect that’s a heck of a long way. I google mapped it and Jesus fucking Christ, how the fuck???????
Once she arrived, she changed her name to Harriet and took her husband’s surname. Harriet could have lived a very simple and safe life, but instead she decided to head back to the south, using her connections in the Underground Railroad, she made her first guide to freedom for her niece’s family.
She continued working with the Underground Railroad and became an ‘abductor’, the most dangerous role for the underground system. She personally extracted slaves from their owners and brought them to freedom in the north.
Not only did she take on the most dangerous role—and it was especially dangerous for her since she had been a slave and now had a bounty on her head—she also would smuggle out more than the customary one or two slaves at a time. Harriet wasn’t happy leaving anyone behind and so she would smuggle whole groups of slaves instead.
She was forced to lead her groups to Canada after The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was put in place. Up until that point, Harriet would guide the escaped slaves to Philadelphia. That’s more than double what she used to travel!
In 1851 she tried to bring her husband north but he refused to leave, choosing to live out his years in Dorchester County with his new wife, Caroline.
In 1857, Harriet transported her parents out of the South and into Canada. They later relocated with Harriet to New York where Harriet bought her own property in 1859. This became her home for the remainder of her life.
Her last mission was in 1960, when she returned to the south to rescue her sister and her sister’s children, only to find that her sister had already died and Harriet was unable to find her niece and nephew. Harriet took another family instead because there is no way she was going to waste a trip!
Some of the things she did during her time working for the Underground Railroad:
-lead two chickens around on a leash so that if she came by one of her former slave owners she would pull the leashes which caused the chickens to carry on. This gave her the opportunity to hide her face while ducking down to ‘deal’ with them.
-Carried around newspapers that she pretended to read since she was known to be illiterate, this fooled people into thinking she was someone else entirely. Clearly illiterate did not equate to stupid for Harriet.
-Singing songs that had hidden meanings for slaves to signal to those in earshot her plans of action.
-Carried a loaded revolver everywhere she went.
-Once pulled said revolver on a slave after they threatened to turn back because he was fucking knackered from all that walking. This forced him to continue and he and the rest of the group were free a week later. I bet he was glad Harriet was such a hard ass!
-Whilst she was smuggling another group of slaves, Harriet suffered from a bad tooth infection so she knocked her entire top row of teeth out with the revolver.
-When a freed slave was captured and about to be sent back to the south, Harriet snuck into the courthouse, yanked him out of the Bailiff’s hands and rushed him out, as cops beat her. He was recaptured and kept in the judge’s office, so Harriet rushed in with others and rescued him again while being shot at.
She well and truly earned her moniker of ‘Moses’, with a decade of escapes and not a single person lost. She managed to smuggle out almost her entire family!
In total, after ten years of liberating slaves, Harriet returned to the south nineteen times, helping around 300 slaves to escape.
In 1861, the Civil War kicked up and Harriet went straight to the heart of the South to assist the Union army. She worked in an all-white troop stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia which was flooded with fugitives. These fugitives were given food and put to work which they weren’t paid for. Many critics suggest they had merely changed masters. Tubman assisted them as a nurse, cook and washing clothes.
She continued work as a nurse in South Carolina, where loads of soldiers and fugitives were dying from common and treatable illnesses. Tubman used her knowledge of local roots to treat them and her healing methods became the stuff of legends among soldiers.
She soon became a spy and helped recruit former slaves for a regiment of African American soldiers. She was charged with an entire scouting group. She created lifelines and escape routes for slaves.
Being black, her place in the army was questioned, being a black woman, it was questioned ten-fold. But Harriet more than proved the naysayers wrong.
She became the first woman to lead an assault during the Civil War when she daringly guided three steamboats on a night raid of plantations along the underwater mine filled Combahee River. Not only that, but the homes of the Confederacy’s most elite forces were along its shores.
Harriet’s raid successfully torched plantations, seized loads of supplies and rescued almost eight hundred slaves in just one night! All of that and not a single fucking casualty. This put the number of slaves she helped free at over one thousand. Bloody brilliant.
Despite being a bloody war hero, Tubman faced discrimination throughout her life, including during the ride home to New York after the war in 1865. The conductor didn’t believe her military-issued ticket was real so she was forcibly removed. She was removed by more than four people, breaking her arm in the process.
She also battled with the government for over thirty years to receive compensations for her services in the war. This is largely credited to her service being undocumented…Though I doubt that was the only reason. To begin with, all she received was $200 for 3 years of service.
She appealed the federal government and had many people back her in her claim. It wasn’t until 1890 that she finally received some more money for war service, other than her original pay, and it wasn’t even for her service. It was for her husband’s service, as a war veteran’ widow pension of $8 a month. It was still a win though, it was the first time Harriet had a reliable income, but her application to be paid appropriately for her own service was still stuck in bureaucracy.
After efforts for a lump sum payment being denied time and time again, in February 1899 it was proposed that her current pension be increased to $25 a month. This was knocked back also, but eventually, Harriet was awarded an increase to $20 a month, an extra $12 from her original widow’s pension, for her service.
Still, the world couldn’t get Harriet down. She dedicated her life to women’s suffrage and humanitarian work, speaking all over the country and she focused mostly on African-American women’s rights.
She used all of her money to help others, causing her to spend her later years in poverty. She left her door open for anyone who needed food and shelter. Before she received any money from the government for her service in the war, she supported herself and others through the sales of produce from her own garden, getting loans from friends and accepting donation of food.
In the time after the war, Harriet’s house burned down, she married a man named Nelson Davis after her first Husband died, having been loyal to him despite him remarrying years prior and not having a legal marriage. She became a widow 20 years later, had two biographies written about her in her lifetime and donated her second property in 1903 to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to be converted into a senior home for coloured people. It took five years, but eventually, in 1908 the Harriet Tubman Home held its opening celebration.
She also had brain surgery where she refused anesthesia and chewed on a bullet just like soldiers did when they had limbs amputated. If you didn’t already think so, surely just that should be enough to convince you of her badassery. Chuck Norris has nothing of Harriet Tubman!
Following her surgery, in 1911, Harriet moved out of her home and into the care of the facility she had started and in 1913, Harriet died of pneumonia. She would have been between the ages of 88 and 98 years old and was buried with military honours. One of her last statements she told those visiting her in her deathbed was that “I go to prepare a place for you.” Thinking of others, until the very end.
Her home and land were inherited by her Niece May Gaston, her grandniece, Katy Steward and Frances Smith, the matron of the Harriet Tubman Home.
Now, I don’t know how many of y’all believe in reincarnation but I think it’s mighty convenient that the same year our girl Harriet died, Rosa Parks was born…
Officially she bore no children that we know of. However, it is suspected that her niece, Margret was actually her daughter, fathered by John or a white slave owner, as she was described as light skinned. Later in life, she adopted a girl with her second husband Nelson Davis, named Gertie.
It was announced back in 2016 that Harriet Tubman would be on the United States’ $20 bill by 2020, 100 years after women earned the right to vote. However, the Trump administration has significantly delayed the roll-out of new bills, by at least six years, because Trump ruins everything.
Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath
I hope you enjoyed this months edition of Ancient Archived! Let me know who you’d like to see me talk about!