“The Black Moses”
In 1831 a Kentucky slave by the name of Tice Davids ran away from his master in an effort to get to the free state of Ohio and he swam across the Ohio to escape from his master. His master followed him watching him closely as he waded ashore and then he seemed to just disappear, and his master went back to Kentucky upset claiming to his friends that the slave “must have gone off an underground road.” The name stuck, and the legend of the Underground Railroad began but was not made famous until Harriet Tubman became it’s celebrated “conductor.” In time the system used to rescue slave from the south to freedom in the North became known as the Underground Railroad. Using the terminology of the railroad those who traveled on the journey had specific railroad names. Those that went to the south to find slaves seeking freedom were called “Pilots”, while those who were guiding the slaves to safety were called “conductors.” The slaves themselves that who were escaping were called “passengers” and those that helped to hid out the slaves in their homes and feed them were called “stations.” If the ownership of a home that was helpful to salves had changed they would have to find a new “station” to stay at, and these stations were established by word of mouth. They were kept very secretive and there were no records kept, as to avoid detection. If slaves were caught they were returned to their masters, if one was caught housing a slave they would be arrested and jailed.
Harriet Tubman was born it is assumed in 1822 in Bucktown, Maryland in Dorchester County to Harriet and Benjamin Ross. Her actual birth name was Araminta Ross and was born in a time when the culture was steeped in slavery. At the time of her birth her parents were slaves and as result she was born into slavery. She grew up as a child in poverty, having just the basic necessities of life that she needed to survive. Her childhood was filled with strenuous and backbreaking labor under very harsh conditions. At the age of 5 she was hired by a neighbor in which she did many domestic duties, but her main responsibility was to care for their baby. During the night it was her task to keep the baby from crying and disturbing the master and his mistress. If the baby cried out, and the mother had to get up, it was not to care for the child, but to whip Harriet for not keeping the baby quiet. Not only this but if she did not do her household chores to the master’s liking, she would be punished as well. She recalled an incident in which she remembered being whipped 5 times before breakfast. From the age of 5 on up she was constantly forced to do hard and backbreaking labor which included checking muskrat traps in cold rivers, working as a field hand, plowing fields, and hauling wood six days a week. As result of her forced labor and the guidance of her parents, Harriet at an early age learned how to navigate through the woods. Her ability to navigate the woods would play a major influence in her life in the later years.
When Harriet was 13 years old an incident took place that would leave a notable scar upon her for the rest of her life. She was asked one day to tie up a disobedient slave on behalf of her master to be whipped, but she refused. As result the slave tried to run away to avoid the punishment. The owner in order to stop the man from running away, picked up a heavy iron weight and threw it at him. Yet instead of hitting the runaway slave, the weight hit Harriet in the head nearing crushing her skull. As a result of this incident she would have bouts with narcoleptic seizures for the rest of her life and would come upon her at any time. She would often fall asleep at irregular times and without any warning, and not being able to control it. Therefore, her master began to recognize her condition and sought to sell her but was unable to do so. Soon after the incident with her master, she began to pray for her master with the prayer “Oh, dear Lord, change that man’s heart and make him a Christian.” She learned one day that she was going to be sent to the far south, which was very hostile to slaves, and her prayer then began to shift to, “Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him Lord, and take him out of the way, so he won’t do more mischief.” Not long after the prayed that prayer, her master died suddenly and filled with sorrow she prayed, “Oh, what I would give the world full of silver and gold if I had it to bring that poor soul back; I would give everything!”
In 1844 when Harriet was 19 years old she married a man named John Tubman who a free black man at the time. It was at this time that she took of the name Harriet instead of Araminta Ross in honor of her mother. Although her husband was not slave but a free man, she remained a slave in her marriage with him. After they had been married for 5 years they still had no children together and Harriet longed to be freed from her life of slavery and wanted to flee to the North, into free territory. As result Harriet decided that she wanted to flee to the North, but her husband had no desire to do so, and refused to go with her. In 1849 even though her husband refused to go she decided to head North to gain her freedom, with the help of what was called the Underground Railroad. When she started off on her journey her two brothers went along with her but decided to turn around and they went back, leaving Harriet alone on her long 90-mile journey to Philadelphia. Harriet would only travel by night to avoid detection from anyone that might try to track her and to avoid seeing anyone during the daylight hours. As she traveled during the night she would fix her eyes on the North Star to help guide her to her destination and would have probably taken her a week to arrive at her destination. When the North star was nowhere to be found she would find her direction by feeling for the moss that grew on the north side of the trees.
Harriet was aided on her journey by a group of abolitionists, freed slaves and Quaker activists are apart of the Underground Railroad to help her on her journey to freedom. Her first stop on her journey to freedom in 1849 was at a Quaker community to the farm of a white woman that she met named Miss Parsons. Miss Parsons was a Quaker that Harriet had met one day while working in the fields and was curious about her scar on her head. After hearing Harriet’s story, she was moved and told Harriet that if she ever needed help that she could come to her home nearby in Bucktown. This was an Sovereign act of God for Harriet to have met Miss Parsons, because at the time there were few whites that were against the cause of slavery and would actually care for someone like her. Harriet trusted Miss Parsons and on the morning of her escape she went hastily to her home. After eating some breakfast Miss Parsons had told her about a couple other stops that would be able to help her on her escape. After leaving Miss Parson’s home Harriet then traveled to her next stop the home of another Quaker who had a load wagon of produce and had Harriet climb in and hide under it. She was so tired from her journey that she fell asleep as the wagon journeyed along. After a few other stops along the way in which she was provided food and information, she ended up making her way to Camden, Delaware. Here she met a man named Ezekiel Hunn, who was a farmer that provided her with food and told her of her next stops along the Underground Railroad. She had now passed through one state line and had one more to get to Pennsylvania.
From Camden, Harriet made the journey to Middletown in Delaware where she met up with Ezekiel’s brother John and she stayed in his home. From there she ventured onto New Castle, Delaware and then eventually Wilmington, Delaware. It would be here that she would meet with a powerful man that would play a significant role in helping her rescue slaves and would become her lifelong friend. His name was Thomas Garrett and he was born in 1789 in Philadelphia and was a Quaker shoe salesman, who was opposed to slavery. He moved to Wilmington, Delaware in 1822 and started to hide runaway slaves in the rooms above his store. For the next 40 years Thomas Garrett would assist between 2,500-3,000 slaves by giving them food, shelter shoes, and clothing. Thomas was eventually caught and was fined so heavily by the authorities that he lost everything that he had for assisting in the escape of slaves. Eventually Harriet was rowed up the Choptank River and was hidden in the attic of a Quaker home, then spent time hiding for several days in the haystack of a German immigrant and then in storage hole for potatoes of a free black family. Eventually as she continued north she made it to her destination and she crossed the Philadelphia line. Upon crossing the Pennsylvania line into freedom, Harriet was amazed and overwhelmed with the fact that she was now free, and she said “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person, now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Although she was free she would face a new set of trials and those would include things such as where would she stay, what kind of job would she get, what kind of friends would she make, and whom could she trust. Harriet said after coming into Pennsylvania, “I had crossed the line of which I had been so long dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution, I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there. Oh, how I prayed then, lying all alone on the cold, damp ground: ‘Oh, dear Lord.’ I said ‘I ain’t got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble.” The Lord heard her prayers and provided what she needed in this new city and territory. She met a man named William Still and he helped her to find places to work and to live and gain more information into the Underground Railroad that was helping slaves to freedom. During her first years in Pennsylvania she had several jobs that included cleaning, cooking, and a seamstress at hotels and clubhouses. Her desire and determination were to rescue her family and bring them there with her. As a result, she lived very fragile in order to save money to rescue and support her family. Harriet’s not only wanted to rescue her own family, but she wanted to make it her focus to rescue as many slaves as possible from the bondage of slavery. Harriet learned of the vast network of the secret Underground Railroad that help slaves escaping from the south to find freedom in the North and Canada. This would help her when she rescued slaves in knowing where to take them for housing and for food. However, when she went on her rescue trips she funded them out of her own pocket.
She would end up risking her life over and over as she traveled back to Maryland to free her family and other slaves. On one trip back to Maryland she went to rescue her husband, but she found out that he had taken another wife instead. Although she was hurt she continued on with her mission to rescue as many slaves as possible. Harriet became the fiercest leader in the Underground Railroad and from 1852 on, she would make at least one time a year into slave territory to rescue slaves. Often times when she would go on her rescue missions, she would rescue at least 10 slaves at a time. Over a period of about 11 year she took nearly 20 different trips as a part of the Underground Railroad and she rescued as many as 300 slaves. These also included her brothers Henry, Ben, and Robert along with their wives and some of their children. In 1857 her parents agreed to leave Maryland and have Harriet take them to a home she purchased for them in Auburn, New York. Although they were to feeble to walk and make the journey, Harriet had arranged for a wagon for them to transport them off their plantation at night, and they arrived safely at their new home in New York. Often times in her rescue missions she would make them in the winter and would not actually go into the plantations to get the slaves. Instead she would send messages to the slaves to meet her eight or ten miles away, and then she would meet them. Often times the slaves would leave on a Saturday night, so that they would not be missed or found out missing until Monday morning, thus giving them a head start on the journey. When the masters found out the slaves were actually gone, they would then post up reward signs, to which men, hired by Harriet, would take them down.
For all her efforts to rescue slaves she earned the named “The Black Moses” for rescuing so many from the bondage of their slavery. Due to the high risk of her rescue missions, Harriet demanded strict obedience to all those slaves traveling with her to freedom. She didn’t want to risk getting caught and ruining the chances for slaves to be freed and the Underground Railroad being found out. She knew that a slave that went back to his master would be forced to reveal information and would spoil her mission Therefore, Harriet carried a gun with her and stated to the slaves she was helping that if any of them deserted or wanted to go back to their masters that she warned them that she would shoot them. She never actually had to shoot any slaves, but the gun was used to intimidate anyone who thought about going back to their master. In all her trips she was never caught and never lost one slave, and said in her own words, “I was a conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say-I never run my train off the track and I never lose a passenger.”
It was Harriet’s deep faith in God that enabled her to make the journey believing that she was called by God to do so. Harriet said that she would often listen very carefully to the voice of God when she was take her rescue journeys. In fact, after she suffered the injury to the head from the weight thrown at her by her master, she said that she began to receive visions from God and that God communicated with her in a deep and personal level. Many of those who would travel with Harriet and knew her well, spoke of the amazing insight she had from God about certain situations and Godly intuitions that she would receive that would come true. In one instance she felt warned by God to turn aside from a path that she was on to immediately cross a rushing river. The men with her hesitated at first not knowing the depth of the river, but Harriet stepped in boldly and the river never went beyond her chin, and she arrived on the other side safely. After watching her the other men followed and made it to the other side safely. Later she learned that there was a group of men were waiting on the path they were on wanting to seize them. Had she not listened to God’s direction she would have been caught and her mission discovered. Thomas Garrett would say of Harriet that “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. Harriet seems to have a special angel to guard her on her journey of mercy… and confidence that God will preserve her from harm in all her perilous journey.” Her biographer Sarah Bradford said of Harriet, “Her prayer was the prayer of faith and she expected answer…when surprise was expressed at her courage and daring, or at her unexpected deliverance, she would always reply ‘Don’t, I tell you, Missus. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord!”
When the Civil War began Harriet took on a new role in the fight for freedom. During the civil war she became a nurse, laundress, and spy with the Union Army along the coast of South Carolina. After the war was over she settled in Auburn, New York and devoted the rest of her life to helping others. He good friend William Seward sold her some property and she created a home for her family members and for orphans, elderly, and the disabled veterans. Around 1869 while helping others in her home in Auburn she learned that her husband John Tubman had died and therefore he was a widow now in God’s eyes. She met around that time a man who was a war veteran and former slave named Nelson Davis who suffered from Tuberculosis. John and Harriet ended up getting married on March 18, 1869 while John was 25 years old and Harriet was 20 years older. Their married lasted for almost twenty years before Nelson died. Harriet spent most of her life in poverty. As result for her service in the Union army for nurse, cook, spy, and scout she received only $200 for 3 years of service. Eventually through appealing to federal government and the aid of friends advocating for her she was able to receive $8 a month off pension and that from her husband who also served in the union as well, but not from her own service. However, she didn’t receive this pension until 30 years after the war was over.
In 1903 Harriet donated some of her property to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn, New York. It would be on that property that the Harriet Tubman Home For The Aged would open in 1908. In time Harriet’s health began to decline and she herself had to enter the facility that bore her name. Then on March 10, 1913 surrounded by family and friends, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia. Harriet’s life is one of faith, courage, and determination that helped hundreds to both their physical freedom and their spiritual freedom. Abolitionist John Brown said of Harriet that she was, “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent.” Harriet an example of how thru faith in God can accomplish great task, though she never had an education and she was illiterate all her life, it was her faith in God and the scriptures that she memorized from childhood that inspired her courage, so that she has become one of the most well-known women in the history of the world. So inspiring was Harriet’s life that announcement was made on April 20, 2016 by the US Treasury, that in the year 2020, her face will be printed upon the back of the $20 bill. Perhaps Kristina Arriaga, the executive director for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty described Harriet best when she said, “Harriet Tubman was a woman of faith who was not afraid to act on her beliefs to fight for justice. Her incredible moral and physical courage is an example to all Americans, as is her willingness to act on her Christian faith. She is an icon of religious liberty.”