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“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 was an American abolitionist and equal rights activist.
Born into slavery in the USA in around 1822 (she didn’t know the exact year she was born), she was called Ariminta Ross or ‘Minty’ for short. Her grandparents had been brought to America from Africa as slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade. She had eight brothers and sisters.
At this time, it was legal in some states in the US to own slaves. These were referred to as ‘Slave States’. In other northern states, it was illegal to own slaves or use people for forced labour. These were referred to as ‘Free States’.
Tubman and her family were slaves on a plantation (a huge plot of land for growing crops such as sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee) in the slave state Maryland. Being a slave was a horrible life; as a slave, you were owned by another person and forced to work. Harriet and her family were often punished using whips and treated poorly. They had to live in separate slave houses, usually with no proper furniture or beds. Her masters and owners would regularly send or sell members of her family to neighbouring plantations, splitting them up.
When working on the plantation as a teenager, Tubman suffered a severe head injury. An overseer threw a large, heavy object at another enslaved person who was attempting to escape but hit Tumban instead. After this, Harriet often suffered from headaches, dizzy spells and would fall asleep without warning. She would also experience vivid dreams and visions, which she thought were messages from God. She was passionate about her faith and this would guide her decisions throughout her life.
In 1844 Harriet married a free black man named John Tubman. She changed her name to her mother’s name: Harriet and took her husband’s last name. John planned to save enough money to buy Harriet’s freedom from her owner, but this never happened.
A few years later, in 1849, Harriet and her brothers managed to escape. They had been rented to another plantation so it was easier to slip away unnoticed. However, her brothers had second thoughts. They wanted to return to their family and Harriet was forced to return with them.
Undeterred, Tubman escaped again. This time she was alone. In order to stay hidden from slave catchers, Tubman used something called The Underground Railroad. This was not a real railroad, nor was it underground. It was actually a network of secret safe houses called stations and kind people who wanted to help slaves escape the slave states. The people who ran the railroad were called conductors and the safehouses along the routes were called stations.
Tubman had to travel by night to avoid being spotted. It is unknown how long it took her to get to a free state, but it could have been up to three weeks of travel. Eventually, she crossed the border into Pennsylvania, a free state.
She recalled the experience years later:
Although she was now free, Harriet was not happy. She knew her family were still enslaved back in Maryland. She saved money and, in December 1850, she went back to help her family escape as well and brought them back to Philadelphia. She did attempt to seek out her husband, but found he had remarried and that he wished to stay where he was.
Over the next few years, Tubman continued to return to the slave states to help enslaved people escape. She became one of the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad, helping over 70 slaves escape. It is said that she never lost one of her ‘passengers’.
In 1861 a civil war broke out between the free states (The Union) and the slave states (The Confederate) in the US. If the Union were to win (which ultimately they did), it would be a big step forward to abolishing slavery in the whole of the US.
Tumban immediately allied herself with the Union and worked as a cook, nurse and scout for the soldiers. She provided the Union with information about Confederate supply routes and led raids on the enemy camps. In one such raid, more than 750 slaves were rescued from boats.
After the war during a train journey to New York, Tubman was asked to move from her seat. She refused and was forcibly removed from her seat, breaking her arm in the process. This incident was mirrored by Rosa Parks’ actions when she refused to surrender her seat on a bus in 1955.
Even after slavery was made illegal in the US, Tubman continued to devote her life to fighting for equal rights and caring for other people. She frequently spoke for the rights of women and gave speeches for the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
She remarried and adopted a little girl named Gertie. In her later years she lived in Auburn with her family and elderly parents on a farm she had bought.
She established a care home for ‘Aged and Indigent Coloured People’ where she herself spent her final years. She died in 1912 of Pneumonia.
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