Useful Notes: Harriet Tubman

"Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff
Wasn't scared of nothing neither
Didn't come in this world to be no slave
And wasn't going to stay one either."
—"Harriet Tubman" (poem) by Eloise Greenfield

Harriet Tubman was born sometime in the 1820s, a slave on an American plantation in Maryland. She started life as a house slave, and when she grew up was assigned to work in the fields and forests. One day when she was still quite young, she was running an errand at a dry-goods store and was caught in the pursuit of a runaway slave. She was left with a violent head injury, and for the rest of her life she suffered seizures and narcoleptic fits that would leave her unconscious and unable to be woken up.

In 1849, she successfully escaped from Maryland into the free state of Pennsylvania.

"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

However, she soon decided that it wasn't enough to have won her own freedom: She wanted the freedom of her parents, siblings and friends. So, over the course of 11 years, she returned 13 times to the South, risking increasing danger each time, and never using the same route twice. She never once was caught nor lost a passenger despite a rumored bounty of $30,000 on her head. To that end, she had a simple policy for her charges: It was their decision of whether they wanted to take the risk escaping with her, but once they started, there was no turning back. Legend tells that when she had a runaway who got cold feet and was about to return to his plantation, she held him at gunpoint and said, "You go on or die." She became the most famous conductor that the Underground Railroad has ever known, rescuing over 70 slaves through a network of safe houses, railroads and secret paths.

During the Civil War, she led the military operation known as the Raid at Combahee Ferry, where she led over 700 South Carolina slaves to their freedom. This, technically speaking, makes her the first woman to lead forces during the Civil War. She survived the Civil War and spent much of the rest of her life supporting the suffrage cause until she died of pneumonia in 1913, when she must have been at least well into her 80s. Today, she is rightly remembered as one of the great American heroes.

Naturally, if there are time travelers arriving in Antebellum America or you want to have present day American heroes have noble heroic ancestors, you can expect them to be giving Tubman some help.

Tropes Associated With Harriet Tubman Include:

  • Almighty Janitor: From a societal perspective, this woman started out the lowest of the low on the social rung, but exhibited astounding cunning and nerve.
  • Badass
  • Exact Words: A story goes that when Harriet Tubman snuck into Southern territory on a liberation mission, she paid a visit to her parents — still enslaved, and she had no plan yet to free them. They refused to look at her, not out of anger, but so if any slavers asked them if they had seen their daughter (garnering a reputation for a slave liberator), they could say "no" with complete honesty.
  • Folk Hero
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: See the above legend.
  • Guile Hero: To thwart her slaver enemies, Tubman could take dares with an audacity that rivaled Robert E. Lee. For instance, on one mission, she was at a train station with her charges and spotted slave catchers watching the northbound trains for escaped slaves. Thinking fast, Tubman had her company board a southbound train and cannily retreated into enemy territory where they could use a safer station.
  • Handicapped Badass: The narcoleptic fits mentioned above would sometimes strike in the middle of an escape. And there was nothing that the rest of the party could do except move to a safe location and hope that Tubman would wake up soon. Clearly, she never let this stop her.
  • Identical Stranger: One of the funniest Totally Looks Like images is this one that compares her to E.T.!!
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Her main goal in returning south was to rescue her parents, siblings, and extended family.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: She measured only around 5 feet tall.
  • Underground Railroad: Its most famous icon.
  • Vague Age: Like most slaves, she did not know the exact year, let alone day, of her birth.