Until recently, many, if not most, Americans had not heard of Harriet Tubman. When Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that her likeness would be added to the front of the $20 bill replacing Andrew Jackson many people wondered who she was and what had she accomplished to merit that honor. After all, Jackson was a former President of the US and a hero of the famous Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 (and, ironically, a slaveholder). I, myself, had a very sketchy knowledge of Tubman. My research for this blog disclosed that she was, in fact, a very accomplished and compelling figure in US history. Read on, and see for yourself.
Araminta Ross was born circa 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact date and place are unknown. This was not uncommon, as records of slaves’ birth dates were often sketchy. We do know that her parents were slaves, and she had many siblings. As a child, she suffered a very serious head injury when a slave owner hit her (accidentally) with a heavy metal weight. She nearly died, and it caused her to suffer from severe headaches, epileptic seizures, strange dreams and visions throughout her entire life. In circa 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman. Such “blended” marriages were not uncommon on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the time, because of the plethora of freed blacks in the area. Sometime after, she changed her first name to Harriet, which had been her mother’s name.
In 1849 Harriet and her two brothers escaped. They got away, but her brothers later chose to return and took her with them. It is unclear why, but one of them had just become a father and may have wanted to reunite with his family. Shortly thereafter, Harriet escaped again, this time without her brothers. Her exact route was unknown, but she was surely aided by the so-called Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses run by abolitionists and sympathizers (many of which were Quakers) that aided runaway slaves. During the days, in order to evade detection, she would often hide in the marshes and swamps that proliferated the area. On one occasion, the owner of the house in which she was hiding had her perform yardwork, in order to blend in as part of the household. Years later, she said that upon crossing into Pennsylvania she had such a feeling of relief and awe that she “felt like [she] was in heaven,” and [she] “looked at [her] hands to see if [she] was the same person.” It is hard for us to imagine those strong feelings.
Over a period of eleven years Tubman returned to the Maryland area over a dozen times to rescue slaves. It is estimated that she personally escorted 70 slaves to safety and provided detailed instructions to 50 or so more. Her ingenious planning favored arranging escapes in the winter (when the nights were longer and potential witnesses would tend to stay indoors) and on Saturday nights (which provided a longer head start because newspapers did not print runaway notices until Monday). Quick thinking was also a necessity. One time, while riding a train she spotted one of her former slave owners nearby. Fearing he would recognize her, she quickly grabbed a newspaper lying nearby and pretended to read it. Her hope was that he would not think it was she, because he knew she was illiterate. The deception worked.
Tubman was never captured, never even suspected, nor were any of the slaves she guided. She was fond of saying “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” She was so successful that the renowned abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, nicknamed her “Moses” (for obvious reasons).
In the years immediately preceding the Civil War Tubman became associated with John Brown, the notorious activist, some would say, “terrorist,” who was a strong proponent of using violence to destroy slavery. She was not, however, present when he raided Harpers Ferry, and, thus, was not tainted by that ill-fated escapade.
Tubman was active for the Union during the Civil War. Among her many accomplishments:
- She helped map certain marshy and swampy areas with which she was familiar for Union armies.
- She provided critical intelligence that assisted in the capture of Jacksonville.
- She nursed wounded union soldiers in army hospitals in the South.
- She became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the war. The attack against a group of plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina resulted in the rescue of over 750 slaves.
In her later years she retired to her farm in Auburn, NY, which she had purchased in 1859 from none other than Senator William Seward, a prominent politician from the area who was to run for president in 1860, and who, in later life would be responsible for the purchase of Alaska from Russia for a pittance. In addition, she became active in the Women’s Suffrage movement, working alongside luminaries such as Susan B. Anthony.
Eventually, she became penniless, and was forced to rely on donations from friends and well-wishers to survive. She died in 1911 from pneumonia.
Tubman was widely respected and admired during her lifetime, however, following her death she became a national icon. Consider:
- She has had countless statues, plaques, schools and memorials named in her honor.
- The federal government established two national parks in her honor – one in Maryland and one in Auburn, NY.
- Literary honorariums include two films, biographies and an opera.
- In 1944 the US launched the SS Harriet Tubman.
- In 1978 the US Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
- A survey taken late in the 20th Century named her as number three on a list of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War. Can you guess the two ahead of her? See below.
- She has even had an asteroid named after her (#241528).
- And, now the $20 bill with her likeness. By the way, don’t go crazy looking for the new bill just yet. The Treasury estimates the new bills will not be ready for circulation until 2030.
Due to the foregoing, one can easily discern the reasons for placing Tubman’s likeness on the $20 bill.
Answer: Betsy Ross and Paul Revere.