Her parents called her Minty. Their names were Rit and Ben, and they only met because their mutual owners had married each other, placing the two on the same plantation. Minty knew who her mother and father were, but she didn’t belong to them, she belonged to her white owners. In her younger years, she was fed and clothed and housed, an investment for a few years later when she would be required to work for her masters, like the other pieces of property she lived among.
Rit’s mother, Modesty, had crossed the ocean on a slave ship the generation before. Rit herself would work mostly as a cook and would go on to have nine children, Minty being one. Three of Rit’s daughters were sold to other white owners and never seen again. When a man came to take away Rit’s youngest son, Moses, Rit hid him for an entire month, and she threatened to split the head of her owner if he took her son away, though she could have been whipped or killed for her resistance.
As a young child, Minty was loaned out to a white woman named Miss Susan, who had a new baby. Minty was whipped when the child cried, even at night, and whipped again when she couldn’t clean something to Miss Susan’s liking. As an old woman, decades later, Minty could still show others the scars she still bore from those beatings she received as a child. Minty was regularly beat as a child by her white masters. As a young teenager, one man hit her so severely with a metal weight upon her head that it did permanent brain damage, leading others to believe she was slow. For the rest of her life, Minty had headaches, seizures, and powerful dreams and visions. She was only 5 feet tall.
A deeply religious woman who believed in deliverance, Minty spoke often to God and believed that he answered. She saw her father join the ranks of free black man living around them when he reached the age of 55, he having been manumitted, or set free by his previous owner through a stipulation in the will. Minty’s mother was later freed by her husband, who purchased his wife’s freedom for $20, hard-earned.
Minty married a free black man named John Tubman, and she changed her name from Araminta, for which Minty was short, to the more Christian name, Harriet. Free black men and women lived all around the slaves in their community, there for the slaves to watch and envy. Harriet knew that any children she had would be born into slavery despite the free status of her husband, based on her laws at the time. Considered of low value because of her health struggles, Harriet faced being sold to another plantation in the deeper South and away from family, and instead she risked her very life and chose to run. Using the informal Underground Railroad, she found help from slaves, free men, and abolitionists like the Quakers and, avoiding the slave catchers, found her way to the free North.
Within a few years, Harriet became known as a veritable legend, a secret woman who led escaped slaves through the wilderness with her quick and careful pace and her gospel songs. Harriet soon became known as Moses, leading her people from captivity to the promised land: freedom. Though most of her adventures remain private, it is estimated she guided several dozens of slaves to freedom, and none of them were ever recaptured.
Harriet saved fathers and mothers, children and infants, who she sometimes had to drug during the long journey so their cries wouldn’t alert nearby slave hunters. She saved some of her family members, those who wanted saving, including brothers and nieces, but her husband married another woman (and was later killed by a white man in a dispute). It was only decades later that Harriet gave interviews about her time on the Underground Railroad. She shared only a handful of stories, highlighting the hopes and the dangers.
Moses planned her escapes in the uncomfortable winters, when slave hunters would not want to follow, and she generally left on Saturdays, since missing slave notices wouldn’t show up in the newspapers until Monday. She hid and slept during the day, and walked endlessly at night, over hundreds of miles, dozens of times, to the North, often all the way to Canada. Moses blended into crowds when she needed to, using disguises and props to lower suspicions. She carried a revolver for protection, and would threaten to kill any slaves who wanted to turn back as that would put the entire group at risk.
Years later, during the inevitable Civil War, Harriet provided intelligence to abolitionists and even lead armed assaults in a battle or two, saving thousands more lives. While on a military trip, white men in a train assaulted her, breaking her arm.
In her older years, Harriet was lauded as a hero, but she lived most of her life in poverty, giving much of what she had to others. She married Nelson Davis, two decades her junior, and they stayed married for decades, even adopting a child. Harriet went on to fight for women’s right to vote alongside Susan B. Anthony and others.
Harriet Tubman died when she was in her early 90s. Despite her poverty status, she inspired the opening of a home for the elderly who were in poverty.
The 5 feet tall disabled black girl grew up being beat by masters, told she was worthless and never good enough, and she went on to save hundreds of lives. Heroes show up in the most unlikely of places, and I am thrilled to call Harriet Tubman one of my heroes.