Harriet Tubman was an unlikely hero, rescuing hundreds from slavery over the course of her time on the Underground Railroad. Born a slave and prone to illness (due in part to malnourishment and the abuse she endured), Tubman possessed a stubborn nature that pulled her through unrelenting hardship.
Her strength, perseverance and deep faith in God made her perhaps the most successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad in American history. We caught up with Tubman’s determined spirit outside her permanent home in Auburn, N.Y.
Q: How would you describe your youth growing up as a slave?
A: “I grew up like a neglected weed—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”
Born a slave around 1820 in Maryland and named Araminta by her parents, Tubman was part of a large family, perhaps with as many as 11 siblings. At least two of them were sold south when Tubman was a girl, cementing for her one of the biggest horrors of slavery: the fragility of the family unit.
Though illiterate like her parents, Tubman learned the Bible from stories and songs and developed a devoted faith in God at an early age.
This faith helped her endure a difficult childhood. Her master began hiring her out when she was only 5, and she endured beatings and whippings from a variety of masters and mistresses. While a young woman, she sustained a severe blow to the head when defending a fellow slave, an injury that reportedly left her subject to narcolepsy for the rest of her life.
Because of her headstrong temperament, Tubman’s master eventually decided she was unfit for domestic labor and consigned her to field work. She learned to work as hard as a man, built stamina and thrived in outdoor conditions—traits that would serve her well in her future on the Underground Railroad.
Q: What gave you the courage to escape from slavery?
A: “I had reasoned this out in my mind; 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.”
Because she was hired out so much over the course of her youth, Tubman gained a greater experience of the larger world than many slaves. When she married a freedman named John Tubman in 1844, she longed for freedom as well. She did not want her children born into slavery, and Maryland law dictated a child’s status followed that of the mother.
Though she had prayed for years for guidance, in 1849 she decided prayer was not enough, that instead she must become an active partner in God’s plan for her. Disappointed by her husband’s lack of support for her dream and his gradual withdrawal from her (perhaps because of their failure after five years to have children), Tubman resolved to change her life… alone, if she had to.
Though only in her 20s, she headed north under cover of darkness in the fall of 1849. Historians theorize she may have taken advantage of the protection and guidance of anti-slavery Quaker households on the Eastern Shore, people she had become acquainted with during the years she was hired out. She ended up in Philadelphia, home to a large free black community and to the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery.
Q: What inspired you to make countless journeys south to rescue more and more fugitives from slavery?
A: “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.’ And he said ‘It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.’ ”
Intimately familiar with the landscape of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tubman resolved to become part of what had become known as the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery advocates who helped fugitives by providing guidance, safe houses, supplies and transportation.
She knew that every journey South to rescue fugitives put her at great personal risk as a fugitive herself, but she was driven, in large part, by her desire to make her family and other slave families whole again. When she heard of the impending sale of one of her nieces and the young woman’s children, she made them her first rescue. The niece, ironically, was the daughter of one of Tubman’s sisters who had been sold when they were children. She went on, in 1851, to rescue two of her brothers and a party of 11 fugitives.
Q: How do you account for your enormous success as a conductor on the Underground Railroad? You never lost a single fugitive en route to freedom.
A: “When danger is near, it appears like my heart goes flutter, flutter.”
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it became ever more dangerous for escaped slaves like Tubman to reside in the North, as slave catchers could find them and take them back into bondage. Tubman resolved to move her rescued family members to Canada, settling most of them in St. Catharines, Ontario. She remarked at the time, “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em clear off to Canada.”
Tubman was making at least one trip a year to bring groups of fugitives across the border to safety. Personable, resourceful and persistent, she made contacts in the anti-slavery networks across the North, maintaining support and funding for her operations. Tubman traveled at night and knew all the safe houses where her group could gain succor and support along the way.
Q: How did you keep going when so much was stacked against you?
A: “When I think of all the groans and tears and prayers I’ve heard on plantations, and remember that God is a prayer-hearing God, I feel that his time is drawing near. He gave me my strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant I should be free.”
Tubman’s deep faith inspired her and toughened her. On one rescue mission, when a man in the party refused to go farther, she pointed out the risk to their whole group if he returned to his master, pointed a revolver at his head and said, “Move or die.”
It is impossible to be certain how many slaves Tubman led to freedom, but it had to have numbered in the hundreds. And she rescued a steady stream of family members, including five siblings and her parents.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman actively supported federal armies in the South, worked to aid escaped slaves at Fort Monroe in Virginia, and later provided care and sustenance to fugitives on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. She also organized an extensive spy network, drawing on her experience of more than a decade on the Underground Railroad.
In later life, she was an active speaker on the circuit promoting women’s rights. When asked if she believed women should have the vote, Tubman reportedly said, “I suffered enough to believe it.”
And indeed she had, devoting her life to aid her fellow refugees from slavery, often to the detriment of her own health and prosperity. After a 30-year fight, Tubman obtained a pension for her service to the Union Army and a pension for her second husband’s federal service as well.
She died in 1913 a hero. In 1904, when she spoke at the 28th annual convention of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Association, she said, “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.”