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Harriet Tubman

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Black History Month is a time to reflect on the accomplishments and contributions of people of African descent in our nation. One of the most recognizable African American figures in U.S. history is Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked her life constantly for her own freedom and the freedom of any slave in the U.S., and later, the Confederacy.

Harriet Tubman’s birth name was Araminta “Minty” Ross. Like many tens of thousands of African Americans at the time, she was born a slave sometime between 1820 and 1825 in Dorchester County, Maryland. When she was young, she suffered severe head trauma when a lead weight was thrown by an overseer at another slave who had run away. The weight missed its mark and struck Minty in the head, causing a lifetime of sudden fainting spells and headaches. She even began to have what she described as “premonitions,” dreams and visions from God that strengthened her faith. Minty later married a free man named John Tubman, taking his last name and changing her own first name to Harriet.

In 1849 her owners threatened to sell her, and fearing for her safety, Harriet decided to flee north to freedom. John Tubman would not join her; he decided to remain in Maryland and eventually remarried. Harriet utilized the Underground Railroad in her journey, a series of friendly and covert waystations to spend each night. Organized by freed slaves and abolitionists, the Railroad had been long established and was a well-trodden path to freedom for escaped slaves. Harriet Tubman would become familiar with portions of it, as she did not stop at gaining her own freedom. She would make the trip many times, first to free her family, then to shepherd others to the slavery-free states. Over the course of her time as a “conductor” for the Railroad, she accumulated a bounty of $40,000 for her capture.

The free states in the north were only a temporary refuge however, as the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. This gave license for slave owners and marshals to arrest runaways, even in free states, and obligated law enforcement to return runaways to their “owners” as well. Tubman was now a fugitive in the north as a runaway herself. Tubman adapted, and the Railroad changed course further north. Canada was the most popular and preferred destination; it was still a British colony and had outlawed slavery twenty years before. In total, Tubman was responsible for liberating around seventy slaves from captivity, and earned the nickname “Moses” from those she safeguarded to freedom.

Her achievements and contributions toward the end of slavery did not stop there. When the American Civil War started, and with the Fugitive Slave Act broadly ignored by Union forces, Tubman served as a nurse for the Union. Her knowledge of the south made her highly valuable to Union forces, so Tubman served as a scout and spy. Her network of fellow ex-slaves and current slaves in the Confederacy allowed her to relay their supply and troop movements to the Union.

Tubman’s most impressive feat by far was her part in the Combahee River Raid. She led three Union gunboats up the Combahee River in South Carolina, guiding them around mines and into Confederate territory. Along the way her taskforce picked up escaped slaves, many of whom would join the Union Army. Upon arriving at their destination, Union troops charged out from the boats and began torching the targeted plantations, liberating slaves there too. The Confederate response was slow, and by the time their soldiers arrived the Union troops had left. In total around seven hundred and fifty slaves were freed during the raid, and supplies to local Confederate forces were greatly diminished. Harriet Tubman was the first woman to ever lead U.S. troops in combat.

After the war, Tubman did not slow down. She campaigned for women’s suffrage, donated land for the construction of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly, and dictated books about her life to support her activism and living expenses. She gave so much for causes that she barely had enough money to support herself, eventually receiving $20 a month in pension for her military service. Harriet Tubman eventually settled in the same elderly home named after herself, and passed away in 1913 and was buried with military honors. Today, she is one of the most recognized and admired women in U.S. history, a champion and symbol of human rights and freedom in the face of adversity.

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