"Let My People Go": Known as "Moses" to Those She Rescued from Slavery, Harriet Tubman Left an Indelible Mark on American History

Article excerpt

Harriet Tubman was an unlikely hero, rescuing hundreds from slavery over the course of her time on the Underground Railroad. Born a slave and prone to illness (due in part to malnourishment and the abuse she endured), Tubman possessed a stubborn nature that pulled her through unrelenting hardship.

Her strength, perseverance and deep faith in God made her perhaps the most successful "conductor" on the Underground Railroad in American history. We caught up with Tubman's determined spirit outside her permanent home in Auburn, NY

Q: How would you describe your youth growing up as a slave?

A: "I grew up like a neglected weed -- ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it."

Born a slave around 1820 in Maryland and named Araminta by her parents, Tubman was part of a large family, perhaps with as many as 11 siblings. At least two of them were sold south when Tubman was a girl, cementing for her one of the biggest horrors of slavery: the fragility of the family unit.


Though illiterate like her parents, Tubman learned the Bible from stories and songs and developed a devoted faith in God at an early age.

This faith helped her endure a difficult childhood. Her master began hiring her out when she was only 5, and she endured beatings and whippings from a variety of masters and mistresses. While a young woman, she sustained a severe blow to the head when defending a fellow slave, an injury that reportedly left her subject to narcolepsy for the rest of her life.

Because of her headstrong temperament, Tubrnan's master eventually decided she was unfit for domestic labor and consigned her to field work. She learned to work as hard as a man, built stamina and thrived in outdoor conditions--traits that would serve her well in her future on the Underground Railroad.

Q: What gave you the courage to escape from slavery?

A: "I had reasoned this out in my mind; 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."

Because she was hired out so much over the course of her youth, Tubman gained a greater experience of the larger world than many slaves. When she married a freedman named John Tubman in 1844, she longed for freedom as well. She did not want her children born into slavery, and Maryland law dictated a child's status followed that of the mother.

Though she had prayed for years for guidance, in 1849 she decided prayer was not enough, that instead she must become an active partner in God's plan for her. Disappointed by her husband's lack of support for her dream and his gradual withdrawal from. her (perhaps because of their failure after Five years to have children), Tubman resolved to change her life ... alone, if she had to.

Though only in her 20s, she headed north under cover of darkness in the fall of 1849. Historians theorize she may have taken advantage of the protection and guidance of anti-slavery Quaker households on the Eastern Shore, people she had become acquainted with during the years she was hired out. She ended up in Philadelphia, home to a large free black community and to the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery.

Q: What inspired you to make countless journeys south to rescue more and more fugitives from slavery?

A: "The Lord told me to do this. I said, 'Oh Lord, I can't don't ask me--take somebody else.' And he said It's you I want, Harriet Tubman.'"

" Intimately familiar with the landscape of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Tubman resolved to become part of what had become known as the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery advocates who helped fugitives by providing guidance, safe houses, supplies and transportation. …