“Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people,” wrote Frederick Douglass of the abolitionist and freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman – who we honour today. Born into bondage on a Maryland plantation, she endured twenty-nine years of slavery before escaping, with only the North Star to guide her to Pennsylvania and freedom. But just one year later, Harriet re-entered Maryland of her own volition to rescue her niece and guide her too to the safety of the North. The following spring, she returned again to lead more family members to freedom. When she returned yet again for her husband, he chose not to accompany her – so she rescued some other slaves. Between 1850-60, Harriet Tubman re-entered the South an estimated 15 times to liberate some 300 slaves. That would be like a Jew willingly and repeatedly returning to Nazi Germany. Time and time and time again, Harriet Tubman crossed rivers, trudged through swamps and navigated through dense forests by night deep in enemy territory to conduct her extraordinary rescue missions that earned her the nickname “Moses”.
Of all the Underground Railroad’s ‘conductors’ guiding fugitive slaves along the vast and highly dangerous network of secret routes and safe houses to the North, Harriet Tubman was undoubtedly the most daring and best known. This evocative description from a 1907 edition of the New York Herald described a typical Harriet-led escape scene:
“On some darkly propitious night there would be breathed about the Negro quarters of a plantation word that she had come to lead them forth. At midnight, she would stand waiting in the depths of woodland or timbered swamp, and stealthily, one by one, her fugitives would creep to the rendezvous. She entrusted her plans to but few of the party… She knew her path well by this time, and they followed her unerring guidance without question. She assumed the authority and enforced the discipline of a military despot.”
So outraged were Maryland slaveholders by the exploits of this diminutive, impudent woman that they put a price of $40,000 on her head. But time and time again, Harriet outfoxed and outmanoeuvred her would-be captors – and she never once lost a passenger.
As her almost mythological fame spread, Harriet became an increasingly important player in the push to abolish slavery. In 1858, John Brown sought “General Tubman’s” assistance in planning his revolutionary raid on Harpers Ferry. She provided him with information regarding her secret routes through Maryland and recruited former slaves for his troops. When the Civil War began in 1861, Harriet provided a similar service for the Union Army – organising a network of slave spies and, with her second-to-none knowledge of the terrain, advising from the trenches where best to attack. In 1863, she became the first American woman – black or white – to lead an armed assault.
Harriet emerged from the war a hero and national figure. She was one of the first African-American women to obtain icon status, and accordingly turned her energies to the women’s suffrage movement – working alongside Susan B. Anthony. After sheltering impoverished former slaves in her own household for decades, she opened a charitable home for elderly blacks in her adopted hometown of Auburn, New York – and it is there that Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia on 10th March 1913 at the age of 89. She was buried with full military honours.
Harriet Tubman was one of the great symbols of courage, strength and resistance during America’s darkest chapter. “Land of the Free” it most certainly was not, but Harriet defied the yoke of slavery to become a towering figure in American history. Her own words serve as a fitting epitaph, and continue to resound today:
“If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”