Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), also known as ‘Black Moses’, was an African-American freedom fighter and one of the best known leaders of the Underground Railroad, an elaborate and secret series of houses, tunnels and roads set up by abolitionists to guide slaves to freedom.
Harriet was born into slavery in Maryland sometime around 1820 under the name of Araminta Ross. She worked from the age of six, first as a maidservant and then on the fields under harsh conditions. She endured years of inhumane treatment by her various owners, including an incident when she was seriously injured by a blow to the head inflicted by an overseer. She never fully recovered from the injury and suffered intermittent blackouts for the rest of her life.
Around 1844 she married a free black man, John Tubman, and adopted his name. Later she also took up the first name of her mother, Harriet.
In 1849, on hearing that the slaves of the plantation were to be sold, she decided to flee. Tubman managed to reach Philadelphia, first on foot and then by train, aided by various members of the abolitionist movement along the Underground Railroad. In Philadelphia, she quickly found work as a maid and joined the city’s active abolitionist movement.
In 1850, after Congress adopted the Fugitive Slave Act, making assistance to fugitive slaves illegal, Tubman decided to join the Underground Railroad. Her first expedition to the South in 1851 was a success and she brought back her sister and her children. Six years later, she led her parents to freedom in Auburn, New York, where she made her home.
Between 1851 and the beginning of the American Civil War, Tubman undertook 18 expeditions to the South and assisted approximately 300 slaves. She was never caught and never lost a slave. Her reputation spread rapidly and she soon acquired the nickname of "Moses". The tales of her expeditions reveal her highly spiritual nature, courage and strong determination to protect those that she assisted.
During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, scout and occasionally as a spy for the Union Army, notably in South Carolina. She also took part in a military campaign which lead to the release of some 750 slaves.
After the war, Tubman remarried and continued her fight for social justice, including the fight for women’s rights. She died on 10 March 1913, around 93 years of age, in a home for needy blacks that she herself had helped found in Auburn, New York.