Stories from History: Harriet Tubman (Araminta Ross)

Sure, you know the name, you know a bit about her work. Did you know about her origin story? Do you know the depths of brutality this woman fought, her willingness to endure pain, suffering, and a refusal to compensate her for her labours, all while still believing in the innate human possibility for good?

Born into slavery in 1822, she not only escaped, but went on to establish herself as one of the greatest specialists in history. After escaping the horrors of slavery, she would have been more than in her rights to settling down to a quiet life. She decided to do something a little different.

She led thirteen missions back into territory that would likely seize her and return her into slavery. Thirteen missions that led to the rescue of seventy enslaved people. Her family and her friends. When she was free, she dusted herself off and turned around to help the next group over the fence. All this was done despite a serious injury from her youth, the result of a heavy metal weight hitting her in the face, that resulted in spells of dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia.

She was given the codename Moses (also awesome), and never lost a single “passenger” in her service to the Underground Railroad. Once she got them into British North America (Canada), she went on to help them establish themselves and find work.

That would have been enough for most people, enough for a mention in stories from history. But Tubman wasn’t done yet.

The Civil War came, and again, it would have been so reasonable to sit aside and let the fight happen. She was already 39, and already had accomplished so much.

She didn’t. She signed up and she served. First as a cook, then as a nurse. That wasn’t enough – she went on to do more. To become a scout and spy for the Union Army. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided a raid that liberated more than 700 slaves. She was a war hero, and a hero to countless lives that she saved.

Despite all she did, despite the lives she saved for her work as a scout and a spy, she was never given a regular salary. For years afterwards, she was denied compensation. This woman put her life on the line for others, for the dream that America could be, and ought to be, a land of freedom. A land where everyone can build a new future, a better and brighter future. All this for a nation that had betrayed her before she was even born, then refused to pay her when she offered to give them everything.

After the war, she “retired” to a home in Auburn. This retirement wasn’t one in the modern conception. She kept working, tirelessly helping others around her. Raising money for causes she believed in, giving to those who were needy. Even after debts began to mount, she was never paid for her military service remember, and she suffered at the fate of a con artist, she was still working for others in her community.

Much of the pain in her life comes from trusting and believing those around her. Believing, despite the nearly infinite darkness that she had seen, in the good at the heart of humanity. Despite a war.

A bill was brought to the floor of the government that she should be paid for her military service, but it was defeated. It wasn’t until 1899, after Tubman petitioned the government in person for her pension, that one was issued. They gave her twenty dollars per month for her services as a nurse.

The good in her heart didn’t end there. She donated a parcel of her land to create a home for “aged and indigent colored people”. She fought for women’s suffrage. She traveled and gave talks, even despite the relatively limited means she was under. She had “suffered enough” for the vote, and thought that it was well past time.

Near the end of her life, the issues from that head wound were becoming worse. She asked a doctor to operate, and he conducted a brain surgery without any anesthetic. She bit on a bullet to deal with the pain.

This was a woman of unmeasured toughness, deserving our thanks.

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