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Black History Month Facts: How Well Do You Know Harriet Tubmans' Story?

The most famous “conductor” and household name, Harriet Tubman, was born directly into the cattle slave system in March of 1822 in Dorchester County,Maryland. Born Aramita Ross, made her mark in American history by risking her life to lead hundreds of fellow enslaved people from the shackles of the plantation system to “freedom” in a network of safe houses.

Life was never easy for an enslaved person. Split from three of her nine siblings after her sisters were sent to distant plantations to later witness her mother resist a trader from Georgias’ attempt in taking Tubman's youngest brother ignited a flame of bravery that wouldn’t be extinguished. The emotional scars that cattle slavery left enslaved people run just as deep as the physical ones. Violence that she suffered in her early life caused permanent physical scars that would haunt her until the day she died. As a teenager, after encountering an enslaved person who was attempting to leave their grounds, the man's overseer demanded that Tubman help him restrain the runway. Tubman refused and was subsequently hit in the head with a two Lb. weight. Following the injury, Tubman experienced seizures, migraines, and narcoleptic episodes in addition to “dream states” that she classified as religious experiences.

Tubmans father, Ben Ross, was “freed” from slavery as it was written in his previous owners will. Like many “freed” slaves during the time, with no education or money saved, he had no option but to continue working as a timber estimator and foreman for the children of his former owner. Although the stipulations of her fathers freedom should’ve included her, her siblings, and mother, the children of their late owner decided that not free them and there was little that Ben could do to challenge the decision.

In 1844, about half of the Black people on the eastern shore of Maryland were considered free and it wasn’t abnormal for a family to be mixed with those considered free and still enslaved people. That same year, after changing her name to Harriet presumably to honor her mother, Tubman married a free man named John Tubman. Lack of records keep us from knowing the inner workings of their relationship, such as the date of their marriage, where or how long they lived together, and if they had any offspring. Any children born within the union would be considered enslaved due to Harriets status. John later declined to make the voyage into the Underground railroad with Harriet, choosing to stay in Maryland with his new wife. Later Tubman married a veteran, Nelson Davis, and the duo adopted a little girl named Gertie.

For over a decade, between the years 1850 and 1860 Tubman made about 19 trips from the South to the North following the affectionately named Underground Railroad. Tubman was known as “Moses” because of her leadership and ability to lead over 300 enslaved persons, including her parents and several siblings, from the physical shackles of the South to the North. First using the Railroad to escape slavery herself in 1849 after her owner became sick, she made her way to Philadelphia. Realizing that she didn’t want to split her family every further and she had less of a chance to make it on her own due to her ailments, she decided to have her brothers as company. Following a notice in a magazine for Harriets’ return, her brother lost their nerve and returned. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”,Tubman recalled later. Tubman could’ve stayed in the North safely but she made it a point to go back for her family and others so that they too could feel the beauty of physical freedom. The dynamics of the journey was altered in 1850 after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, which stated that escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery. Law enforcement officers in these free states had little say and were compelled to aid in their capture, no matter their personal views. Tubman didn’t allow this to stop her as she rerouted the Railroad to Canada, a country who prohibited slavery. In December of 1851 she guided a group of 11 to the North where true freedom reigned.

Current President, Joe Biden, is pushing to get Harriet Tubman's face on our Twenty dollar bill. While some may wonder if this is enough to truly commemorate a person who assisted hundreds of people out of slavery and the first woman to lead and armed military operation in the U.S., it’s certainly a start. For more information about Tubman's life and legacy check out the movie detailing her life, Harriet that can be streamed on HULU.