Women Who Changed the World: Harriet Tubman

In every issue of Oh Comely we celebrate the life of an extraordinary woman you ought to know about. This week, we’d like you to meet Harriet Tubman: an abolitionist, liberator, and humanitarian who ruled the Underground Railway with a pistol and a barrel of belief.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive.”

Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of 1800s Maryland, Harriet Tubman endured the harsh life of a field’s hand from birth, fending for herself and her siblings while their Mother worked in their master’s “Big house”. Sometime between 1834 and 1836, an iron weight directed at another fleeing slave struck her instead, landing with such force it fractured her skull and drove fragments of her shawl into her head. Although she suffered from seizures and periods of semi-consciousness for the rest of her life, the incident was the catalyst of her self-driven revolution.

Continually hired out for odd-jobs despite her impairment, Harriet worked on the docks and in a timber gang. It is here she learned of the secret networks of communication within an exclusively male world. Combining a mariner’s knowledge of safe zones with her own skills of disguise and deception, she became uniquely equipped to flee the horrors of slavery. In 1849, she ran away, leaving her family and husband of five years behind at the plantation. With nothing but the clothes on her back and the North Star as her compass, she evaded bounty hunters and found work as a housemaid in Philadelphia, saving her wages to return South and conduct escape missions. Despite the substantial reward placed on her head, she returned to the site 13 times and helped 70 people find freedom via the covert Underground Railroad. Dubbed “Black Moses” on account of her unrelenting faith and conviction, she carried a loaded pistol and was unafraid to use it against captors, nor to warn fellow fugitives who showed fear or hesitation.

At the outbreak of the civil war, her talents were noticed by the Union Services, who hired her to work as as a spy. Prized for her ability to move unnoticed through rebel territory, she became the first American woman to command an armed military, leading a raid that saw the liberation of another 700 slaves along the Combahee River. During this time she also worked as a cook, nurse, cleaner, scout, laundress and teacher - selling pies, gingerbread and beer in order to supplement her pitiful wage.

 In her later years, she became ever more politicised and continued to campaign for women’s suffrage and black liberation before founding the Harriet Hubman Home for the Aged: a safe space for sick and indignant African-Americans who had sustained injuries similar to her own. Aged 90, she passed away safe in the knowledge of her immaculate record. She never lost a single fugitive, nor allowed one to turn back. 

Further Reading: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson

Images: Library of Congress, Bettman/Corbis of The NYT Photo Archive