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About Harriet Tubman

Photo of Harriet Tubman
(Library of Congress)

Today, Harriet Tubman is most known for her work as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a role described in legal documents, letters, newspapers, magazines, biographies, and histories. To some extent, the prominence of Tubman’s Underground Railroad work has kept the public from seeing her other accomplishments. She served as a scout, spy, and nurse during the Civil War, and received military recognition at her burial. She also established a home for poor African Americans, later known as the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. 

A brief word portrait by historian Benjamin Quarles (The Negro in the Civil War, 1989, pg. 225) brings to life Harriet Tubman in one of her many roles: "As a scout, Mrs. Tubman's deceptive appearance was a great asset. Who would have thought that this short, gnarled black woman with a bandanna wrapped around her head was engaged in such a bold venture as entering Rebel-held territory for the purposes of urging slaves to take to their heels, appraising military and naval defenses, and taking in with a knowing eye the location and quantity of supplies, provisions and livestock? Rufus Saxton, Brigadier General of Volunteers, recorded that she 'made many a raid inside the enemy's lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal and fidelity'"

With that same zeal and courage Harriet Tubman lived her entire life dedicated to freedom for all. Her bravery and steadfastness sparked the imaginations of those who knew her or came in contact with her. She formed friendships with abolitionists, politicians, writers and intellectuals. She knew Frederick Douglass and was close to John Brown and William Henry Seward. She was particularly close with suffragists Lucretia Coffin Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Susan B. Anthony. Intellectuals in New England’s progressive circles, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Bronson Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Franklin B. Sanborn, and Mrs. Horace Mann, befriended her, and her work was heralded beyond the United States. Despite her lifelong illiteracy, Harriet Tubman was a most effective participant in the world around her; she was brave, determined, tenacious, and generous. As a woman whose legacy as a humanitarian who devoted her life to selflessly helping others, she would be considered a most remarkable heroine in any generation.

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