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Harriet (Ross) Tubman

By The Gale Group – Born in 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman had the hard childhood of a slave: much work, little schooling, and severe punishment. In 1848, she escaped, leaving behind her husband John Tubman, who threatened to report her to their master.

As a free woman, she began to devise practical ways of helping other slaves escape. Over the following 10 years she made about 20 trips from the North into the South and rescued more than three hundred slaves. Her reputation spread rapidly, and she won the admiration of leading abolitionists (some of whom sheltered her passengers). Eventually a reward of $40,000 was posted for her capture.

Tubman met and aided John Brown in recruiting soldiers for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown referred to her as "General Tubman". One of her major disappointments was the failure of the raid, and she is said to have regarded Brown as the true emancipator of her people, not Lincoln. In 1860 she began to canvass the nation, appearing at anti-slavery meetings and speaking on women's rights.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, she was forced to leave for Canada, but she returned to the United States and served the Union as a nurse, soldier, and spy; she was particularly valuable to the army as a scout because of the knowledge of the terrain she had gained as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Tubman's biography (from which she received the proceeds) was written by Sarah Bradford in 1868. Tubman's husband, John, died two years after the end of the war, and in 1869 she married the war veteran Nelson Davis. Despite receiving many honors and tributes (including a medal from Queen Victoria), she spent her last days in poverty, not receiving a pension until 30 years after the Civil War. With the $20 dollars a month that she finally received, she helped to found a home for the aged and needy, which was later renamed the Harriet Tubman Home. She died in Auburn, New York.

Source: The African American Almanac, 7th ed., Gale, 1997.

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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