A Brief History
On March 10, 2018, as we have done every March 10 since 1990, Americans celebrate Harriet Tubman Day, a holiday signed into law on March 9, 1990, by President George HW Bush. Tubman, an escaped African American slave, famously made 13 rescue missions into the slave holding Southern states to rescue at least 70 slaves via her network for escaped slaves known as the “Underground Railroad.” An advocate for the abolition of slavery, Tubman also served as a Union spy during the American Civil War and advocated for women’s suffrage after the Civil War. While you may have been taught these things in school, did you know she is also a Saint in the Lutheran Church?
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 (or 1822), she once suffered a head injury from a heavy object thrown by the slave owner at a different slave, an injury which gave the religious minded woman “visions” throughout her life. (Tubman was a devout Christian.) Despite legal documents that should have freed Tubman’s parents and their children from slavery when their original owner died, their new “owners” refused to honor the will of their benefactor and Tubman was unable to mount a successful legal challenge to their status as slaves, mainly due to a lack of money. In 1849 Tubman escaped slavery and began her career of sneaking back to the South to rescue other slaves, especially her family members, bringing them back North to “Free” states and/or Canada. In 1858, although she never advocated violence against White people, even slave owners, Tubman assisted John Brown in the planning of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, although she was not present for the actual raid.
When the American Civil War broke out, Tubman served as a cook and then as a nurse, transitioning into the highly dangerous roles as an armed scout and as a spy. In 1863 she guided an expedition into South Carolina that freed 700 slaves. After working tirelessly for the Union and repeatedly risking her life in service to the United States, Tubman headed home after the end of the Civil War, only to be ordered to the smoking car of the northbound train she was riding on rather than be allowed to sit with White passengers. Tubman refused to change cars, explaining about her long service to the Union, but was forcibly removed by the conductor and other people helping him, breaking her arm and causing other injuries in the process. Like many other African Americans that served the Union during the Civil War, Tubman was paid less than her White counterparts, and even then, sporadically. After the War she found it difficult to document her service and was unable to claim her pension until 1899, 34 years late! In 1869, Harriet married another African American veteran of the Civil War, although he died in 1888.
Tubman’s activism went from the abolition of slavery to a struggle for Civil Rights for women and African Americans, church involvement, and the establishment of an old folks home for African Americans. Living on charity and in ill health in her last years, Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913, having achieved a degree of fame by that time. Numerous places and institutions have been named in her honor, and a 20th Century survey named her the third most famous civilian of the pre-Civil War period in American History, trailing only Paul Revere and Betsy Ross. Many American schools bear her name, and a World War II Liberty ship was named in her honor. The Episcopal Church honors Tubman (along with Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) in their Calendar of Saints (July 20) and on the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (along with Sojourner Truth) on March 10. Numerous other monuments, statues, awards and other honors have also been bestowed upon this most interesting of women.
In a ground breaking decision, the United States Treasury announced in 2016 that Tubman’s likeness would appear on the $20 bill, displacing slave owning President Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill. The plan called for new printings starting on or after the year 2020, but current Secretary of the Treasury, the Donald Trump appointed Steve Mnuchin, has put such plans on hold, claiming “more important” things to consider.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about placing the likeness of this American heroine on the $20 bill? Can you think of a more deserving woman in American History to put on paper money before Tubman? What other women would you like to see on our paper currency? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bradford, Sarah Hopkins. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Corinth Books, 1886/1961.
Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. Little, Brown & Company, 2004.