No one knows for sure when Harriet Tubman was born; it was probably around 1820. But we do know two facts for sure — she had a remarkable life, and she died on March 10, 1913.
In remembrance, The Writer’s Almanac published the following tribute on March 10, 2021 —
A woman known as “Moses” died on this day in 1913. Harriet (Ross) Tubman was born to slave parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, in Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact year of her birth is uncertain, but it was probably around 1820. She was christened Araminta by her parents, and soon became known as “Minty,” though she eventually renamed herself Harriet after her mother. When she was about five or six, the slave-owner hired her out as a child-minder. She was whipped if the baby cried and woke its mother, and one day she received five whippings before breakfast.
When the 15-year-old Harriet refused one day to help an overseer restrain a runaway slave, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight and was left unconscious without medical care for two days. Although she recovered, she began suffering from seizures, and narcolepsy, and also began to have visions and prophetic dreams. Deeply religious, she viewed these as messages from God.
She married a free man, John Tubman, around 1844, though she was still a slave. When the plantation owner died in 1849 Harriet escaped with two of her brothers. John Tubman stayed behind and eventually remarried. Using the Underground Railroad and the aid of Quakers, traveling by night to avoid the slave-catchers, navigating by the North Star, she made it to Philadelphia and enjoyed a brief period as a free woman until passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made her a runaway slave once again. The thought of her family left behind in Maryland haunted her, and she worked odd jobs and saved her money, so that a year later, she might return to help her niece’s family escape.
Over 10 years and at least 13 trips, Harriet Tubman is believed to have led some 300 souls out of slavery into freedom in Canada. On one of her last trips she brought out her parents, who were by that time around 70 years old. She used ingenious diversions to avoid being caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for Friday nights because “escaped slave” notices couldn’t be published until the following Monday. At one point, the price on her head was as high as $40,000, but she was never betrayed. She was never captured and neither were the slaves she led. Years later she told an audience, “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
She also served as a cook, a nurse, a scout, and a Union spy during the Civil War, and though she received a commendation for her service, she was never paid. She described one battle she witnessed:
“And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
After the Civil War, she began taking in orphans, the elderly, and the infirm. In 1903, she bought land adjacent to her home in Auburn, New York, and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent, and then transferred the mortgage to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Though this was her final major humanitarian project, she continued to travel and speak at suffrage conventions into the early 1900s.
She and Frederick Douglass had great respect for each other. He wrote to her in 1868:
“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 labored 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.”
Copyright © 2021 Prairie Home Productions. To listen to the audio version, go to https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-march-10-2021/.