Washington, DC (FEE) – When the day arrives that a woman’s image adorns Federal Reserve currency for the first time, it might well be that of Harriet Tubman. She’s reportedly on the short list. It may, however, be a dubious honor to appear on something that declines so regularly in value. Without a doubt, this woman would impart more esteem to the bill than the bill would to her. Her value is far more solid and enduring.
Slavery was once ubiquitous in the world — and even intellectually respectable. That began to change in the late 18th century, first in Britain, which ended its slave trade in 1807 and liberated the enslaved throughout its jurisdiction in 1834. Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America in 1865, American blacks risked everything attempting to escape from their masters, who sometimes pursued them all the way to the Canadian border. Tubman, herself a fugitive slave, became the most renowned “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a network of trails for escapees from the antebellum South to the North. As many as 100,000 slaves risked life and limb traveling its routes. It was the most dangerous “railroad” in the world.
Born Araminta Harriet Ross in 1820 in Maryland, Tubman survived the brutalities of bondage for 29 years. Three of her sisters had been sold to distant plantation owners. She herself carried scars for her entire life from frequent whippings. Once, when she refused to restrain a runaway slave, she was bashed in the head with a two-pound weight, causing lifelong pain, migraines, and “buzzing” in her ears. She bolted for freedom in 1849, making her way to the neighboring free state of Pennsylvania and its city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.
“I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming,” she later wrote.
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 haven’t got no friend but you. Come to my help Lord, for I’m in trouble! Oh, Lord! You’ve been with me in six troubles, don’t desert me in the seventh!
Tubman bravely ventured 13 times back into slave states to personally escort at least 70 escapees to Northern states and to Canada. “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years,” she famously recounted, “and I can say what most conductors can’t say: I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Those passengers included her aging parents, her three brothers, their wives, and many of their children.
Working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse during the Civil War, Tubman morphed quickly into an armed scout and spy. She became the war’s first woman to lead an armed expedition when she guided the Combahee River Raid, an expedition that liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
For her service to the government — tending to newly freed slaves, scouting into enemy territory, and nursing wounded soldiers — she was treated shamefully and shabbily. She was denied compensation and didn’t receive a pension for her war duties until 1899. She took in boarders and worked long hours at odd jobs to make ends meet.
In an August 1868 letter to Tubman, famous abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass paid tribute to her heroism:
Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt “God bless you” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.
Tubman spent her last decades caring for others, especially the sick and aged. She often spoke publicly on behalf of women’s right to vote. For relief from that head injury mentioned earlier, she endured brain surgery in Boston in the late 1890s. She refused anesthesia, preferring instead simply to bite down on a bullet. In her words, the surgeon “sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable.” She died in 1913 at the age of 91 — a real hero to the very end.
In 2014, an asteroid was named for Tubman. In my book, that beats a Federal Reserve note hands down.
For additional information, see:
- Burton Folsom on the Underground Railroad
- Biography Channel video biography of Tubman
- Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
Written by Lawrence W. Reed for the Foundation for Economic Education.