Like most popular versions of oft-repeated stories, we are all familiar with Harriet Tubman's role as an Underground Railroad "conductor"; shepherding over 300 runaways to freedom in the north and (after the Fugitive Slave Act) to Canada. And like most "legendary" tales, the more complicated real story gets lost in what we might describe as the children's version.
Yes, while still a teenager, Harriet Tubman (then known as Araminta Ross) got in the way of a slavecatcher chasing a runaway and was hit over the head with a scale-weight while the other slave escaped. Tubman suffered from epilepsy for the rest of her life as a result. And yes, Harriet Tubman escaped bondage in Maryland and followed Polaris (the North Star) to her freedom in Philadelphia where she became active wth the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement. But this is the same Harriet Tubman who later in life became active in the women's suffrage movement, turned her home in Auburn, NY into one of the first Homes for the Aged in the U.S. This is the same Harriet Tubman who, after being denied her military pension for service during the Civil War, built the John Brown Hospital for Disabled Military Veterans on her property.
Yes, Harriet Tubman led hundreds of captives north on the Underground Railroad, but she also guided many hundreds more while working as a "spy" for the U.S. Army. On one mission, she was put in command of three patrol boats for an expedition up the Combahee River, assaulting plantations and freeing more than 700 slaves along the way. She and her troops were responsible for guiding the boats around "torpedoes" (river mines) to burn the plantations and escape with former slaves who swam out to the boats. Tubman's tactical brilliance and strategic sagacity later led to the liberation and capture of Jacksonville, Florida.While John Brown was the first to give Tubman the title "General" (during the planning phase of the failed Harper's Ferry Raid, which she'd supported and intended to lead until succumbing to an epileptic seizure), this was no mere honorific. Her war-time experience as the only woman to ever command regular U.S. troops in combat (to this day), proves that she deserves the rank. Even though the U.S. government refused to grant her military pension (she collected a widow's pension from the Army after her second husband, Nelson Davis, who she'd met leading the Combahee River Raid, passed on), newspapers of the period make her role as a military leader clear. Following the Civil War, Tubman's main efforts shifted to the Women's Suffrage movement and various humanitarian activities.
As regular Fire on the Mountain readers know, the People's Organization for Progress is an activist organization working for social change within the African-American community of northern New Jersey. My colleague and FotM founder, Jimmy Higgins, and I have frequent posted articles about POP's campaign to keep public hospitals open (see "POP Says Save Our Hospitals" and "Save Our Hospitals—Muhlenberg Defense Moves to Trenton", plus additional stories) the ongoing anti-war activism during which POP built the largest peace and justice coalition in NJ history (see "Black-Led March in NJ" and "Black NJ Organizes Against the War, and many others) as well as many additional postings about POP marches, rallies and forums. It is unusual for the People's Organization for Progress to run bus trips, other than to demonstrations, because we are primarily an activist organization, building struggles in the Black community. Nonetheless, the visit to Harriet Tubman's home and gravesite was both educational and transformational for the many members and friends who accompanied us. POP hopes to return to Auburn, NY again to share this experience with others (for additional pictures from this trip see Harriet Tubman Davis home & gravesite.)
It is only by knowing and understanding our past that we can change the present and our children's future…