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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 727

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This is the grave of Harriet Tubman.

Perhaps born in 1822 into slavery in Maryland, Araminta Ross, as she was born, could in fact have entered into this world anytime between 1820 and 1825. Historians have tried to figure this out, but it’s really guesswork, as was the case for most slaves unless their master kept careful records that have survived. Her parents lived on different plantations, which was common and of course made for even trickier and more tenuous relationships than living on a single plantation. Tubman lost three sisters to being sold away by the time she was a girl; the devastation to the parents cannot be imagined. When her master threatened to sell Harriet’s brother, her mother finally resisted and threatened to split the first white man who entered the room in two with an axe and this convinced the master to back off the sale. Harriet later said this was her first bit of inspiration about the possibilities of resistance to slavery.

Tubman’s early life was the typical tough life of a slave. Lots of beatings, lots of disease, lots of physical scarring, lots of malnutrition. When one overseer threw a two-pound weight at another slave, he hit Tubman square in the head, nearly killing her. She received no medical care for two days. For the rest of her life, she suffered excruciating headaches and seizures. She also began experiencing visions after her injury. Combined with the Black American version of Christianity that was developing by the early 19th century in conversation with still existing African religious traditions and she became something of a mystic.

In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a free Black man. It was only after her marriage that she started going by Harriet. When her master died in 1849, it looked like she would be sold. She was not going to go through that if she could help it. So she left. She initially escaped with her two brothers, but they had regrets and went back and she didn’t want to go on alone. But she soon left again by herself. She was on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and so while it was very difficult to escape, it was at least possible to get to the North, which was not really the case for a slave in Arkansas or Alabama. This time, she stayed. The local Quakers were critical in the Underground Railroad, as were the complex waterways of the region that provided shelter. She traveled by night of course, following the north star.

When Tubman reached Philadelphia, she was both overjoyed but also troubled. Her husband was back in Maryland. So was her family. And so many other people. Lots and lots of slaves who actually managed to escape just found a way to deal with that and moved on with their new lives. Highly understandable of course. But Tubman, well, she was different. She had to free other people. In December 1850, she heard that her niece and her niece’s children were likely to be sold. So she returned to Maryland. She stayed in Baltimore while her brother-in-law helped them get there. She then guided them to Pennsylvania. This was her first trip back. Her second trip back, she freed her brother. Soon after that, she went back again to get her husband, who, again was free. But he had already remarried and moved on. She was furious; wouldn’t you be? She thought about going into the house and raising hell but then said, no, she would find Black people who actually wanted freedom and take them north. Her now ex-husband was eventually killed shortly after the Civil War by a white man during an argument.

With the Fugitive Slave Act now in effect, it really wasn’t enough to get yourself to Philadelphia. Canada was the only guarantor of freedom. So Tubman started taking slaves all the way north. Probably at this time, she took a large group of 11 slaves through Rochester where it seems that she stayed at the home of Frederick Douglass on the Underground Railroad. In total, she went back to Maryland 13 times over the next 11 years, bringing about 70 slaves north. I hardly need to state to readers of this blog the incredible bravery and heroism of Tubman. If she had been caught even one time, at best she would have been returned to slavery and at worst tortured and murdered. But that never happened. Once she actually ran into her old owner. She was carrying chickens as a ruse of doing errands and she started harassing the chickens to cause a ruckus so they would not make eye contact. Crazy stuff. Finally, she went back to get her parents when she heard her father was in danger for hosting a group of escaped slaves himself. They were pretty old but she got them to safety too.

Tubman was also perfectly fine with self-defensive violence as part of the answer. She always carried a gun. When one slave had regrets and started to go back, she held a gun to his head and told him “You go on or die.” He chose wisely. There is every reason to believe she would have capped him. But by telling this story, I am being uncivil or something. Tubman was also an active supporter of John Brown’s raid, helping him recruit for it.

In 1859, William Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land in Auburn, New York and she finally had a real place of her own. Her last trip to Maryland was in 1860, to free her sister and children. But her sister had died and the children were basically being held for ransom. There was nothing she could do as she had no money. So she freed another family.

When the Civil War began, Tubman went to Port Royal, South Carolina, on the sea islands where the Confederates abandoned immediately. This was the time of the Port Royal Experiment, to see if Black people would grow cotton without slavery, a real question among northern whites. Wanting to help, Tubman went down to assist those now ex-slaves with their freedom and to serve as a nurse. She later became a scout for the Army as she had traveled so much using waterways that she was able to use her knowledge in South Carolina. She was critical to the Combahee River Raid, which burned Confederate plantations and freed 750 slaves. This made Tubman famous in the North and newspaper articles talked about her as the prophetess of freedom for the first time. She helped out with Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th before their fated assault on Fort Wagner.

Life for Tubman after the Civil War wasn’t much better than it was for every other Black person. In 1869, a train conductor broke arm throwing her off what he thought of as a white-only car. She could not get a pension for her service in the Army even as that system developed to pay for white soldiers. She moved back to Auburn, worked whatever jobs she could find, and helped take care of her family. She remarried a man 22 years her junior, a former slave and U.S. soldier named Nelson Davis. Her friends started writing books about her to get her a steady income, which helped whatever the quality of the books and their rather sketchy acquaintance with truth. She was conned out of thousands of dollars by sharpers in the 1870s. Outrage about this led to a bill passing the House of Representatives to grant her a $2,000 pension in 1874; of course the Senate voted it down. She did not get a pension until 1895, by which time Davis had died and she qualified for his pension as a widow. Only in 1899 did she finally receive a very small monthly pension for her own work in the war.

In later life, Tubman became a passionate activist for women’s suffrage and traveled to conventions in support of it. She also became heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She gave away a piece of her land to the church to be used as a home for the aged poor within the church. The church then charged people $100 to use it, which infuriated her. She moved there herself in 1911 and died there in 1913, approximately 91 years old.

Harriet Tubman is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York.

This grave visit happened because of LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Black women leaders of the freedom struggle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rosa Parks is in Detroit and Daisy Bates is in Little Rock. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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