First there was the Night. Under cover of darkness, Harriet Tubman herded scores of slaves northwards towards freedom, hidden under its black blanket. Dozens of times she returned, always by night, until she knew the way without having to open her eyes, always for the good of others. It was the night, after all, their great black friend, that gave them their only hope of ever becoming more than 3/5 of a person, and of being treated as human beings were meant to be treated. Perhaps it was the bottomless night that gave her her bottomless strength.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery between 1815 and 1825, depending on which source you find. It was a large family, and her mother Rit struggled to keep it together. Their slave master Brodess sold three of her daughters early on, separating them from the family forever.
When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month. At one point she confronted her owner about the sale. Finally, Brodess and the buyer came to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.” Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale. It was thought that this event convinced Tubman that it was possible to resist.
At five or six she was hired by a woman named “Miss Susan” to rock her baby’s cradle when it slept, and was whipped when it didn’t. She later said she was once whipped five times before breakfast. Some of her scars never healed.
Only three things helped her avoid these whippings: running away (sometimes for five days), wearing more layers of clothing to dull the whip’s blows, or fighting back.
Later, she was hired to check muskrat traps in the nearby marshes, or perform field and forest work, all of which enabled her to gather important geographical knowledge that she would use later on.
At one point around this time she happened to be standing too close to an escaping slave. An overseer threw a metal weight that hit Harriet in the head which, she said (no doctor was ever called to care for her), fractured her skull. She was left on the seat of a loom, bleeding and unconscious, for two days. For the rest of her life she often suffered painful headaches, seizures, and would fall unconscious.
In addition, she also had strange dreams and visions, which she interpreted as revelations from God. From that point on she became a religious person, but rejected the New Testament and its urgings of obedience. She preferred Old Testament tales of deliverance.
Around 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman.
In 1849 her owner died, which increased the chances that her family would be split apart. She was not going to wait and see. Against her husbands wishes, she decided to flee. Later, she said “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
In order to not raise suspicion, she sent a message in code to her mother. A friend was to sing a good morning song to her: “I’ll meet you in the morning. I’m going to the Promised Land.”
The Underground Railroad was alive and well at that time. It was not a train line, it was made up of good people, Abolitionists or others who just wanted to help. They fed the escaped slaves, hid them in secret parts of their houses, got them jobs and places where they could be safe.
Harriet used this “Railroad” and her knowledge of Maryland’s backcountry to wander up into Delaware. She traveled by night, using the North Star as a guide, and hid during the day to avoid greedy fugitive slave hunters. At one of the stops on her “line,” a “conductor” of the Railroad told her to sweep out in front of the house to make it look like she worked there. Finally, she crossed the border into Pennsylvania-freedom. She said:
“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.”
Nearly every year she would return to Maryland to lead slaves to freedom, which earned her the nickname “Moses.” She had many to chose from, as it was once estimated that Africa had lost over 12 million of their sons and daughters in the slave trade.
They used their feet, were buried in carriages, or sat on log canoes for up to 100 kilometres to reach their freedom. And Harriet was always there to help them, she and the Night. Her name became a legend, and the famous black Abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass once said:
“The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have laboured 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.”
Tubman rescued some 70 slaves in about 13 expeditions, including her other brothers, Henry, Ben, and Robert, their wives and some of their children. She also provided specific instructions to 50 to 60 other slaves who escaped to the north. One of her last missions into Maryland was to retrieve her ageing parents. She brought both parents north to Canada, where a community of former slaves (including Tubman’s brothers, other relatives, and many friends) had gathered.
She usually came in winter, when the nights were long and dark. It was cold, but freedom was a greater prize than comfort. They would leave on Saturdays, because news of the slaves’ escape would not be printed until Monday, giving them a head start. She would dress in costumes. Once she wore a bonnet and carried two chickens, and spotted a former master. She tugged at the strings holding the chicken’s legs, and their commotion helped her avoid eye contact.
She would sing “Go Down Moses” and changed the words to tell slaves if it was safe to go on or not.
For all of her achievements leading slaves to freedom in the North, her deeds during the American Civil War (1861-1865) were perhaps more remarkable. Wishing to do everything in her power to aid the North and to free slaves everywhere, she began as a nurse in Port Royal, South Carolina, tending to wounded troops, even calling out President Lincoln because he was at the time not willing to end slavery.
But Harriet was made to do even greater things than being a nurse. In 1863, she began leading scouting parties into the swamps of South Carolina, similar to those in Maryland, and her knowledge of traveling secretly, as well as her charisma, enabled her to lead men deep into enemy territory. They mapped unfamiliar terrain and scouted the people living in the area.
On June 2nd of that year, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War. They destroyed three plantations, captured thousands of dollars worth of supplies, and rescued about 750 slaves.
For the rest of the war she continued tending to freed slaves, nursing wounded soldiers, and scouting enemy territory.
Despite all of these accomplishments, which put her higher than most people ever dared to dream of being, she found at home in New York that African-Americans still had a very long way to go. While on a train in 1869, the conductor told her to move from a half-price section into the baggage car. She refused, showing government papers that allowed her to ride there. He cursed and grabbed her, but she fought, and he called two other passengers for help. While clutching the railing, they muscled her away and broke her arm. As this happened, other white passengers cursed Tubman and shouted for the conductor to kick her off the train. This was 86 years before Rosa Parks.
In addition, it would be another thirty years before the government recognised Tubman’s services during the War and granted her a monthly pension, but did not recognise her as a spy and a scout, only a nurse.
Her headaches and seizures worsened with age, and she finally decided to be operated on in the 1890’s. Afterwards her pain lessened, but during the operation, she was not given anaesthesia. She chose to bite a bullet as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their legs were amputated instead.
She died in poverty in 1913, but was surrounded by friends and family members.
Her last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.” Somewhere, deep in the depths of the nighttime sky, maybe in costume, she is waiting to lead the many downtrodden and enslaved masses to their own visions of heaven.