Harriet Tubman (c. March 1822 – March 10, 1913), born in Dorchester County, Maryland, as "Araminta Ross" and later known as Harriet, was an enslaved African American who gained recognition for her courageous efforts in self-emancipation and significant contributions to the fight against slavery in the United States. She endured the hardships of being "hired out" to different plantations and subjected to harsh punishments, including a severe head injury, which led to periodic seizures and what she described as "visions" sent by a higher power.
Harriet Tubman's escape from enslavement and her pivotal role as an "Underground Railroad conductor" required meticulous planning, resourcefulness, and a profound grasp of the challenging terrain and risks involved. Tubman gathered vital information about escape locations and potential rescues, including details on geography, safe houses, and sympathetic supporters. She upheld strict secrecy, trusting only those she led to freedom. Tubman expertly chose routes through dense forests and swamps, evading detection while relying on crucial safe houses for rest and sustenance. Nighttime escapes minimized visibility, and Tubman used signals and codes to communicate safely. Leading groups, instilling courage, and evading patrols showcased her strategic brilliance. Her vision ensured the success of her missions, solidifying her legacy as a remarkable freedom fighter.
In 1844, Harriet Tubman married a free African American and took the name "Harriet." Facing the threat of being sold away from her family, she decided to escape alone, leaving loved ones behind. Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, where she supported herself through various work. Tubman returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and two children as the American Civil War loomed.
During the Civil War, Tubman offered her services to the Union forces and cared for African American troops and newly freed individuals in South Carolina. Her courageous leadership in 1863 led to a significant raid on plantations along the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina, liberating over 700 men, women, and children from bondage. After the war, Tubman married a Civil War veteran Nelson Davis, and they adopted their daughter Gertie.
We remember Harriet for her heroic actions, which included risking her safety and that of her family to save others from the horrors of chattel slavery. In chattel slavery, enslaved individuals have no inherent rights, legal status, or personal autonomy. They are considered the property of their owners, who have complete control over their lives, labor, and often even their family structures. Chattel slavery was widespread in various historical societies, particularly during the transatlantic slave trade era when African individuals were forcibly brought to the Americas and subjected to this dehumanizing and exploitative system. The abolition of chattel slavery in America on December 18, 1865, was a significant milestone in the fight for human rights and social justice.
Harriet Tubman significantly contributed to the woman's suffrage movement in the United States and voiced her support for women's suffrage when given the opportunity. Tubman had friendships and associations with prominent suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Harriet Tubman's life story served as a powerful symbol of resilience, bravery, and determination for suffragists. Her journey from enslavement to freedom, her leadership in the abolitionist movement, and her commitment to justice inspired those fighting for women's rights. Her legacy as a pioneer in the abolitionist and suffrage movements remains essential to American history, highlighting the interconnected struggles for freedom, equality, and justice. Tubman continued to appear at local and national suffrage conventions until the 1900s.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” —Harriet Tubman
A traveling exhibit commemorating her many contributions is on view for the Georgetown community. The nine-foot statue is on display until October 31, 2023, in Rainey Park on Front Street in Georgetown, SC.
For those interested in learning more about Harriet Tubman's impact, Dr. Edda Fields-Black's forthcoming publication, "Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War," promises to provide further insight into this important historical figure and her role in shaping American history.
Visit the Prevost Gallery at the Rice Museum to view more Harriet Tubman artwork created by Loretta Babe Grayson.