This year marks the 200th birthday of Harriet Tubman. The definitive date of when she was born into slavery in Maryland is not known. The patchwork of clues from history indicates it was possibly 1822. There is a myriad of events that will mark the milestone. In Auburn, New York, where she lived more than 50 years as a free woman, the months-long celebration begins on March 10, on Harriet Tubman Day, which kicks off 5 days of festivities.
Tubman is heralded for her heroic efforts as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. But there are other chapters in her life story that are just as amazing. A couple of years ago, I traveled through parts of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in Dorchester County, Maryland. I stopped at the Dorchester Courthouse in Cambridge where Tubman helped her niece and two children escape from the slave auction block. The irony hit me hard. Today’s symbol of justice was once the epicenter of injustice. I walked to the nearby Long Wharf Park. It has the distinction of being the spot where ships hauled in the enslaved and sold them along the waterfront. I popped in the Harriet Tubman Museum, and what’s behind it is just as impactful, the painting by local artist Michael Rosato that went viral. It’s vivid, Tubman with her eyes calling you and her hand outstretched. You connect with it, and it only deepens as you travel 10 miles south of Cambridge to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. Because the forests, marshes, and waterways have changed little over time, I felt the memories of what it must have been like for Tubman, who worked her way through woods, finding food, and locating hiding spots for slaves.
But where I really got some holes filled in the Tubman legacy was at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek. There’s a short film and interactive exhibits that include highlights of her life, from the early years and enslavement to the railroad and her final chapters. Afterward, I felt cheated and betrayed — what I learned about her in school seemed completely insufficient. Although she was only 5 feet tall, she was a giant, a fierce fighter who exemplified selflessness. She never stopped fighting for others, especially women. She was a suffragist; a philanthropist. During the Civil War, she served in the Union Army as a nurse, a scout, and a spy. Her legacy also includes the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes. What broke my heart though, was as much as she gave to others, even risking her own life, the love didn’t always flow back to her. Her husband, John Tubman, a free man, didn’t share her dream of going North and refused to go. She left him.
They say to give honor to whom honor is due. Let the celebrations begin. Peel back the layers and get to know more of the Harriet Tubman story.
Reflections From Family
Michele Jones Galvin is the great-great grandniece of Tubman and co-author of the book Beyond the Underground: Aunt Harriet, Moses of Her People. She and her mother spent years researching and writing the book. “I feel connected to her, like I know her, the woman behind the icon,” says Galvin.
She says that many people don’t know the role Tubman played during the Civil War. “She nursed wounded soldiers. She was a scout and a spy. She went into Confederate territory and talked to slaves to get information about where the ammunitions and torpedoes were stored. That information was invaluable.”
The intelligence enabled the Army to do a steamboat attack. Tubman led the charge. “They say close to 800 slaves were able to get free as a result of the attack along the Combahee River. She was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things.”
Edda Fields-Black, Ph.D., associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s history department is the author of the forthcoming, Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War. She says that, during the raid, eight rice plantations were demolished in 6 hours. “The refugees paraded down the main street in downtown Beaufort, South Carolina, wearing the dirty gray field clothes they donned to hoe rice in the rice fields before the U.S. Army gunboats came up the Combahee River. The parade stopped at Tabernacle Baptist Church where Harriet Tubman gave an inspiring speech. One hundred and fifty of the able-bodied Combahee men aged 16 to 60 joined Colonel Montgomery’s Second South Carolina Volunteers afterwards.”
Another thing that may not be widely known, says Galvin, is that Tubman was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which still exists. Tubman did her suffrage work through the organization, which also focused on anti-lynching and uplifting Black families.
“Aunt Harriet throughout her life showed great compassion. She not only understood the pain and suffering of others, but she did her best to alleviate it, whether that was as a conductor, serving in the Civil War, or through the home for aged and indigent Black people. She wanted to create a safe place to go for those who had no place to go who were sick and dying. My great grandmother worked out of that home when Aunt Harriet was living.”
As for what shaped Tubman’s life, “It was faith, family, fortitude and freedom,” says Galvin, who is forever inspired by her Aunt Harriet.
Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author of Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, could talk endlessly about Tubman. When Tubman died in 1913, at 93, she was buried with semi-military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. In 2021, the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, inducted her as a full member for her extraordinary intelligence work during the Civil War.
She left her mark too as an entrepreneur. “As a young, enslaved woman, she negotiated with her enslaver to pay him a yearly fee so she could work for whomever she wanted. She hired herself out, earning enough extra money to buy two oxen with which she increased her income and brought her closer to her dream of buying her freedom. After escaping to the North, she purchased her own home in Auburn, where she made bricks, raised and sold pigs, cream and butter, eggs, and vegetables, and bartered with neighbors and Native American women for household items she needed,” says Larson.
A No Nonsense Woman
Ashley Cloud, a former and long-time executive director of the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation who is an expert on Tubman, talks about the friendship between Tubman and Thomas Garrett, who served as an Underground Railroad stationmaster for more than 40 years. “One of my favorite encounters involves Harriet stopping by Garrett’s home, knocking on his door, and unceremoniously asking for $25 dollars. Garrett actually jokes around with her despite her incredibly serious reputation, and I can just imagine her rolling her eyes at him as she declared, ‘God would not have sent me to you, if you didn’t have exactly what I need.’ And he did! Classic ‘never argue with Harriet, she’s always right’ scenario.”
Nina Wright, Ph.D., a retired professor from Onondaga Community College and former assistant dean at Cornell University, is writing a book focusing on Tubman’s life and relationships in Auburn. She is fascinated by Tubman’s “revolutionary love.” “She remained true to her calling no matter the danger,” says Wright.
Tubman’s character shines in many ways. “Even though she couldn’t read or write she created little schools in the South and Canada so that children could learn to read and write,” says Wright.
Ever the humanitarian, Harriet Tubman was always caring for those in need, supplying shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. “During her 54 years in Auburn, she raised numerous orphaned and disabled children,” says Larson.
Tubman’s legacy is full of lessons. “She transformed fear into a force of love. You need the power of love to share your gifts with the world, that’s what we’re here for. She was stimulated by the love of her people,” says Wright.
The Best Harriet Tubman Sites To Visit
You can learn more about Tubman and celebrate her life at events around the country.
Auburn, New York
There will be special events, activities, and offerings throughout 2022. Harriet Tubman Week will run March 10–15, 2022. Highlights include March 10, the Harriet Tubman Day Memorial Service at the Harriet Tubman Memorial AME Zion Church with live poetry, liturgical dancing, and more. March 12, Harriet’s 200th Birthday Celebration at the NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center includes family entertainment, the unveiling of the official Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Passport Stamp, birthday cards from local students, and Tubman’s descendants celebrating with a birthday cake. On March 13, the Wreath-Laying Ceremony will be hosted at her gravesite in Fort Hill Cemetery. At any time this year, enjoy the Harriet Tubman Lantern Trail: an interactive outdoor wayfinding exhibit that allows you to find rare and interesting facts about Auburn’s historical spots, exhibits, and cultural heritage. Also, check out Following in Harriet Tubman’s Footsteps: a walk across the streets and floors of the landmarks that welcomed Harriet Tubman to live her life as a free woman.
Eastern Shore Of Maryland
Maryland’s Eastern Shore is Tubman’s birthplace. The state and partners have a slate of events spanning the bicentennial year. The party gets started the weekend of March 12 at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center. The festivities include a Tubman living history interpretation, musical performances, talks with historians, and more. There are events throughout the year in Dorchester, like the unveiling of a new 12-foot bronze sculpture of Tubman, “The Beacon of Hope,” at the courthouse in September.
Through March 31, 2022, an evocative, 9-foot sculpture, entitled Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom, will stand on the north apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Created by Wofford Sculpture Studio, the traveling monument represents Tubman’s work to free hundreds of enslaved people. Visit Philadelphia — in coordination with the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy — will have a months-long celebration of Tubman, which spans Black History Month and Women’s History Month, and also includes more than 30 in-person and virtual events.
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