Harriet Tubman died one hundred years ago today. If i ask my students who she was, they will know that she was a former slave and later abolitionist, and that she was instrumental in running the Underground Railroad. She saved seventy slaves by bringing them to freedom herself, knowing that if she had been caught, she would be returned to slavery. This would serve as a satisfactory test answer, and clearly enough to honor her as a great American. Her complexity and the complexity of her time should allow us to dig deeper into her story.
First, we should remember that she was born into slavery, yet never accepted the institution of slavery. She faced President Abraham Lincoln in demanding that he consider the abolition of slavery. People have written that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, started the war as a war against slavery, but others have offered Harriet Tubman, the living example of slavery’s horror and injustice, as the force which demanded the end to slavery.
She supported John Brown’s raid, and served as a nurse and spy during the war. Unlike other individuals who served during the War, Harriet Tubman did not receive compensation for her service until long after the War ended, and even then, it was only a fraction of what others received. She spent most of her later years in poverty because the government denied her any remuneration, and because she gave most of her meager funds to others. She owned land in Auburn, New York, and relied on contributions from friends and supporters to live.
She became a suffragist, and made numerous speeches about her experiences, but she had to sell cows to make the travel arrangements to speak. She even took in borders to help pay expenses, but this worked to her advantage: she fell in love with one of her borders, over twenty years her junior, and married him.
She escaped slavery to live in poverty. And she lived in constant pain due to a head injury incurred during her youth as a slave. When she was around 70, she received brain surgery (and chose not to receive anesthesia during the operation) which alleviated her suffering. Ten years later, she used her land to found a home for the aged, and lived there until her death. She died at age 93.
Was this the America she envisioned? Free, yet cheated by her government. Free, yet unable to vote because of her gender. Pain, headaches, dizziness and sleep disorders, with relief coming only in her sunset years. And yet, her words resonate: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”