The image of former slave Harriet Tubman will soon grace America’s twenty dollar bill, and for very good reason.
Slavery was once common in the world. 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 those escapees from south to 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 all her 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. 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 and their wives and many of their children.
In an August 1868 letter to Tubman, the famous abolitionist – also a 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 bondsmen 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.”
Harriet Tubman spent her last decades caring for others, especially the sick and aged. For relief from that head injury mentioned earlier, she endured brain surgery without anesthesia in Boston in the late 1890s, preferring instead to simply 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 – one tough lady and a real hero to the very end.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Each week, he writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.”