Harriet Tubman: A Brave Upstander In History

An upstander is a person who recognizes the difference between right and wrong and chooses to do the right action even when it may not be popular at that time. An upstander stands for what is right and fights to help and support those that are hurting. An upstander speaks out for others who are being persecuted for what they believe in. Harriet Tubman was a great example for all of the above.

Born into slavery, Harriet had a rough childhood. Harriet was first hired by “Miss Susan”, and was ordered to look after a restless baby through the night. If she drifted off, the baby would howl and wake “Miss Susan”, who would then lash Harriet with a whip she kept under her pillow. It is said that Harriet used this skill of wakefulness to stay awake on her night journeys later in life. Fortunately for Harriet, “Miss Susan” grew tired of her and returned her to her owner. During her teen years, Harriet was hired out as a field hand and was required to carry heavy burdens.

One day while working, a slave tried to escape and Harriet placed herself in the doorway to block the pursuers. An angered overseer threw a two-pound weight at the fleeing slave, but it fell short and struck a fatal blow to Harriet’s head. Disabled and sick, Harriet returned to her owner once again; he tried to sell her but nobody wanted a broken slave. Harriet began praying to the Lord to change her owner’s heart, but when she saw his heart was too corrupted to change she began to pray that the Lord would kill him. In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, but had no children. A short time later, Harriet heard that her owner had died. After she had heard of his death, Harriet resolved to not be sold and set of for the North. In Philadelphia, Harriet worked jobs at hotels and clubhouses. When she had earned enough money to pay the expenses, she would go back to the South and spread the word that she was willing to help those who sought their freedom.

When asked why she was willing to risk her life for strangers, she simply replied with, “Dere’s two things I’ve got a right to do, and dese are, Death or Liberty- one or tother I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when de time has come for me to go, de Lord will let them kill me.” Firm in her faith, Harriet went on nineteen trips to free her people from bondage. At one point she traveled back to Maryland to retrieve her husband, but found that he had already remarried and wanted nothing to do with her. Though she certainly had a right to, Harriet did not fall into rage or grief, instead she gathered a group of fugitives and safely brought them back to Philadelphia. Because of these trips, Harriet became famous among slaves, abolitionists and slaveholders alike. The largest price set upon Harriet’s head was that of forty thousand dollars. When again asked why she would risk herself like this, especially with the sizable price on her head, she merely replied with, “Ihave heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them”. By night she traveled, many times on foot, over mountains, through forests, across rivers, and perils from land, water, and enemies. On some occasions a fugitive would panic and want to turn back, but Harriet, who was afraid that the slave would spill the secrets of the Underground Railroad, would point a gun at the slave’s head and say, “Dead folks tell no tales”.

When the Fugitive Slave Law was ratified in 1850, Harriet said that she didn’t “trust Uncle Sam anymore” with her people. With the ratification of the law citizens were forcibly compelled to assist in the capture of runaway slaves, making Harriet’s job more dangerous than ever. Once again, Harriet was asked why she still chose to free her people when she risked being captured and tortured she purely said, “Why, don’t I tell you, Missus, t’wan’t me, ‘twas de Lord! I always tole him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, ‘an he always did”. As a result of the Fugitive Slave Law, Harriet had to start bringing her people to Canada instead of Philadelphia. Harriet’s father, Ben Ross, once tried to free a slave from the chains of bondage, but was caught and arrested. A week before his trial Harriet went and helped her father escape to Canada. No slave that Harriet set free was ever captured, and because of this Harriet freed roughly three hundred slaves from the oppression of slavery. She was also respected by all true abolitionists, such as Thomas Garrett and Frederick Douglass. A Mr. Sanborn, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities once said, “They all admired and respected her, and nobody doubted the reality of her adventures. She was too real a person to be suspected.”

When the American Civil War started in 1861, again Harriet felt like she needed to stand up for what was right. At first, Harriet was a mere cook and a nurse for the fallen soldiers. A colonel by the name of James Montgomery began to notice how all the slaves trusted Harriet so he recruited her as a spy and scout. Harriet was to try and recruit slaves who wanted to fight, but she was also required to spy on the enemy because no one would notice a lowly slave in their presence. In 1863, Harriet became the first woman to lead an assault during the war. Harriet led the Combahee River Raid where seven hundred slaves were set free.

Another significant event that happened in 1863 was when Abraham Lincoln ratified the Emancipation Proclamation. The ratification set all slaves in the Confederacy free. The War ended in 1865, and Harriet went back home to Auburn, New York. Shortly after Harriet became an upstander for the third time. She joined the women’s suffrage movement and gave speeches in Boston, New York, and Washington. In 1913, Harriet dies on pneumonia at the age of 93.

07 September 2020
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