Harriet Tubman is still known today — more than 100 years after her death — for her bravery, leadership and heroism. But who was the real person behind this legacy?
As the slave-turned-abolitionist’s legacy is revived through the new biographical film “Harriet,” and as discussions continue about her face gracing the $20 bill, an esteemed professor of history sat down with InsideEdition.com to discuss the lifetime of hardship and accomplishment that led to how Tubman is remembered today.
Tubman was actually born with the name Amarinta “Minty” Ross in 1822 to mom Harriet Green and Ben Ross. Because she was born into slavery, her childhood would have been filled with hard labor, said Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University.
“Children as young as 5, 6, 7 were typically tasked with adult responsibilities,” Dunbar explained. “She worked tirelessly in the fields, in the house and every time she became ill, she would return home for a brief period with her mother then sent back out to work.”
In her early teenage years, Tubman got into an argument while running an errand; she refused to help an overseer, someone who managed slaves on the plantation, subdue an enslaved man who had escaped. The overseer became enraged and threw a metal weight at her head, injuring her.
“The force of the weight literally fractured her skull,” Dunbar said. “She was bleeding profusely, she passed out and she was removed from the store. She never got medical attention – enslaved people rarely saw doctors.”
It wasn’t long after that Tubman returned to working in the fields, blood running down her face, dripping into her eyes and blurring her vision.
While the violent encounter left her battling splitting headaches and fainting spells that would leave her unconscious for long periods of time for the rest of her life, it was also said to have left her with a gift of visions that she interpreted as revelations from God.
“This was a way for God to speak to her, and so she would wake up from these sleeping spells having had visions — visions that she reported came directly from God that would tell her what to do and where to go. It would help her figure out how to keep herself safe,” Dunbar said. “And later on, they would be extremely helpful as she would help people, including herself, to escape slavery.”
In her 20s, she began going by her mother’s first name and took up the last name of the free black man she married, John Tubman.
After a failed attempt to escape with her brothers, she eventually made the decision to run on her own. In the fall of 1849, she took off toward Pennsylvania, the first state that stopped recognizing slavery.
“We’re not exactly sure the day on which she arrived on the state line of Pennsylvania, but she talks about that moment later on in her life,” Dunbar said. “She makes the comment later on to her biographer that while she was happy, she was also quite sad. She realized she had reached freedom, but that she was alone and that her family members and her friends would never be able to enjoy that same freedom.”
That became her inspiration for the Underground Railroad, which became a series of stations, barns, buildings or homes where people escaping from slavery could find shelter and safety, Dunbar said.
Tubman spent the next 10 years going back and forth from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to successfully rescue nearly 70 people from slavery.
“She preferred to travel in the winter, not during spring and summer,” Dunbar said. “The spring and summer were the moments in which most fugitives attempted to run away. The weather was better, there were more opportunities to find food — fruit and fish — in order to make it to Pennsylvania. But she preferred to use winter and fall, a time in which slave owners were less likely to be looking for fugitives.”
In her off time, she worked as a domestic maid in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, saving money for her next trip to the south.
Tubman eventually took 13 trips, during which she would take the train then stowaway in homes and barns of family and friends. She then paid informants to pass along messages to the people who were waiting for her before successfully rescuing them and bringing them north.
Aside from one sister who died before rescue, Tubman successfully smuggled all of her family members out of slavery, including her elderly parents who eventually made it to Canada. She also successfully made all of her trips without anyone dying during the journey.
“Although Harriet Tubman could not read or write, she was probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the 19th century,” Dunbar said. “She learned and knew about trees and bushes, things that were edible and herbal remedies that could help with ailments or illnesses, cuts and bruises. She also knew quite a bit about the land itself. She knew her way without a compass, without the ability to read signs.”
Dunbar continues her deep dive into Tubman’s feats, including her time as a spy during the Civil War, in her new book “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman.”