Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most inspi¬ rational of all abolitionists, was bom into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. Uneducated and enslaved, it was her strong religious zeal (including visions and voices) that convinced her she would one day be free. At 13, after suffering a severe blow to her head while trying to intervene between a fleeing slave and his master, Harriet began to think continually about freedom.
She married a free black man named John Tubman, but he did not follow her when she finally escaped north at the age of 25. She followed the north star, as hundreds did after her, to Philadelphia.
She came with her fiery religious faith and a philoso¬ phy that would sustain her through unequaled acts of courage: “There was one or two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time come for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.”
In Philadelphia, Tubman heard about the Underground Railroad and became its most famous “con¬ ductor.” First, though she was already safe and employed in the North, she headed south and gath¬ ered up her sister Mary Ann Bowley and Mary’s two children and led them through the secret channel of “safe houses” to Philadelphia.
This was the first of 19 trips. Over her years on the railroad, using old spiritual songs to hide code words, carrying a gun to encourage tired travelers to continue, opium to still crying babies, and prayers that called counsel from the sky, Harriet Tubman brought over 300 people to freedom.
Her courage was so solid that Frederick Douglass (see no. 14)wrote in a letter, “The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public….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 witness of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”
Tubman’s heroism continued far after the Emancipation Proclamation. She tended wounded soldiers during the Civil War, acted as a spy, and helped newly freed slaves adjust to their new citizenship. She was a scout and personal assistant to General Montgomery, and founder of the Har¬ riet Tubman Home for the Aged. She raised money for the education of former slaves and participated in the New England Anti-Slavery Society with Susan B. Anthony. She died in her own retirement home of pneumonia at the age of 93.