The following are the first 2 chapters from the book “The Legacies of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth“
Born A Slave
The girl who would become one of the most important abolitionists and activists in American history has origins shrouded in uncertainty. This is not unusual for enslaved people, who rarely had the chance to document important events in their lives, and rarer still, had masters who would do it for them.
What is known is that Araminta Ross was born circa 1820, somewhere in Dorchester County, Maryland, to parents Ben Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green. Ben and Rit were both enslaved to two different masters—Ben by Anthony Thompson, and Rit by Mary Brodess—meaning that Araminta and her eventual eight siblings—Ben, Henry, Linah, Mariah Ritty, Moses, Rachel, Robert, and Soph—were born into slavery as well.
Neither she nor her family had a clear idea of their ethnic heritage, or what region of Africa their ancestors had originally been abducted from. Contemporaries suggested that they may have been West African, perhaps Ashanti people from modern-day Ghana. But because of the lack of records surrounding most of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we will never know for sure.
Bereft of the cultures of their ancestors and unwelcome in the culture of their enslavers, people like Araminta had to forge their own new identities in order to survive.
From the outset, Araminta’s identity included a fierce belief in God. Her family likely practiced Methodism, and she attended church whenever she was able. Worship was difficult for enslaved Africans in this period.
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Congregations had to be approved and strictly monitored by whites, either to stamp out the non-Christian elements that are left over from the religious practices they held in the time before their peoples were enslaved, or to prevent congregations from becoming a site for sedition and rebellion against slave-owners.
Because of this, Araminta had a very conflicted relationship with the New Testament teachings of obedience, tolerance of cruelty, and generally “turning the other cheek” when facing the issue of slavery. As a result, she favored Old Testament stories of struggle and salvation, which would sustain her and shape her outlook for the rest of her life.
A Life of Labor
Araminta’s resolve was tested almost as soon as she could walk. Her mother spent most of her day doing domestic tasks in her mistress’ home, and her father oversaw timber work on his master’s plantation. This left Araminta alone for most of her time, performing tasks or caring for younger siblings and other infants when she was as young as five years old.
She received her first scars at this age as well, for none of her masters nor the neighbors she would be loaned out to tended to forgive mistakes. One morning after failing to keep a child quiet by rocking and comforting it, Araminta was scourged with a whip by a Miss Susan, leaving her with five lashes before breakfast.
Lack of familial support, high expectations, and cruel punishments defined her early years, and unfortunately, they would only grow more challenging as she grew older. Another neighbor named James Cook once had Araminta manage his muskrat traps in a nearby marsh, even after the girl contracted a case of measles, which almost killed her.
Her only treatment was to be brought back home long enough for her overworked mother to nurse her back to health, only for Araminta to be sent right back out to labor again. As a result of repeat incidents of illness, exhaustion, and injury like this, she was often a sickly child.
Araminta found ways of resisting the awful conditions she was stuck in, both passively and actively. Sometimes she would accept the work, and to a lesser extent, the punishments that she received for not only meeting lofty expectations but also, she would bundle up with extra clothing in the hot Maryland climate to soften the blows of her mistress’ whips and canes. Other times, she would run away from home for days on end, living off the land with the wit and cunning one might not expect of someone so young.
As an adolescent, she began working the fields and forests surrounding the property belonging to her mother’s and father’s masters, who had, by this point, married to consolidate their land and slave holdings. Araminta chafed under the constant direction and control of the whites that she performed household tasks for, and actually preferred the intense fieldwork done alongside her fellow Africans.
She enjoyed being outdoors and developed a deep love of nature, which she would carry with her for the rest of her life. The knowledge of the land she developed at that stage of her life would also give her an unexpected edge when, in a few years’ time, she decided she’d had enough.
That is not to say that her new duties were a blessing, or even a blessing in disguise. Fieldwork was still as brutal for her as for any other enslaved person, even if she was growing into a strong young woman.
Not even the grown men around her could tolerate the work day in and day out, much to Araminta’s misfortune. One day, an enslaved man deserted his post at the nearby Barrett plantation. To stop him, a pursuing overseer threw a heavy metal weight at him when he caught up at a small crossroads market.
The throw fell short, and instead of striking the escapee in the back, it struck Araminta, who had gone to warn the field hand. She went down immediately, bleeding and unconscious from a head injury that could have easily killed her or left her disabled for life.
She was dumped in the chair of a loom on the property for two days, and not given any medical treatment. She was able to convalesce, but she woke up a changed person.
After her “accident”, Araminta would be subjected to regular episodes of intense headaches and seizures that sometimes rendered her partly unconscious. These episodes were accompanied by vivid dreams or waking hallucinations, which Araminta came to believe were sent to her by God. These “revelations” strengthened her faith and convictions and would be a guiding force in the difficult decisions she would soon make.
Manumission & Marriage
Even as a teenager, Araminta yearned for and worked toward freedom for herself and her family. There were precious few avenues toward emancipation for an early nineteenth-century slave, and even fewer were legal. The primary way for slaves to become free—besides escaping to freedom on their own—was to be made free by decree of their owners.
This was a process called manumission or affranchisement, and it was once a very common form of emancipation in the American South. Slaveholders could manumit their slaves for a variety of reasons, often economic.
For example, the second half of the eighteenth century saw an almost ten-fold increase in the number of free blacks in the American Upper South, as slaveholding farmers switched to less labor-intensive crops. Other times, a slave could buy their own freedom by way of paid work or years of service.
Unfortunately, economic incentives could reduce the rate of freedom just as much as increase it, such as Eli Whitney’s patent for a new type of cotton gin in 1793. This new gin made intensive cotton farming easier, leading to a boom in plantation agriculture in the South and a dwindling in manumissions.
Slaveholder fears and politics also played a role. During Araminta’s childhood, an enslaved man named Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in nearby Virginia. For four days in August 1831, he and other enslaved Africans raided plantations, taking horses and weapons, and freeing their fellows.
Almost two hundred people were killed in this rebellion, mostly by white militia who cracked down on the uprising by indiscriminately attacking free and uninvolved black communities. The fear of more slave uprisings like what had happened in the newly-freed nation of Haiti led to much stricter laws on slavery and African Americans being passed in southern states.
Manumission suffered, requiring state permission in some areas or becoming completely illegal in others.
But once in a while, manumission as a personal choice by the slaveholder was able to be put into practice, often as a part of the will of the deceased. Such was the case for Araminta’s father, Ben Ross, whose owner Anthony Thompson promised to manumit him upon his death.
When the man passed in 1840, Ben was fortunate that Anthony’s son, acting as the arbiter of his estate, chose to follow through with his father’s promise. It should be noted that had he wanted to keep Ben enslaved, he would have had the power to do so. Precarious as the whole deal was, Ben Ross became the first free member of Araminta’s family.
Black families of mixed legal status were quite common in the eastern part of Maryland, where as much as fifty percent of the African community was free. There were, of course, legal stipulations put in place to manage these partly free, partly enslaved families. Freedom was matrilineal, meaning that the only way any of Ben Ross’ children could become free or be born free was if his wife Rit Green was also freed.
Soon after her father gained his freedom, Araminta attempted to gain the same for her mother. She paid a white lawyer five dollars—a significant sum of money for that time period—to look into the legal status of Rit. The lawyer discovered that, like Ben, one of Rit’s previous owners had agreed to manumit her at the age of forty-five.
Unfortunately, Rit had been sold to other owners since that time, and her current owners, the Brodesses, were unwilling to free her. Such a case could conceivably have been challenged in court, but to do so was completely out of the means of Araminta and her family. Rit Green would remain enslaved for years to come.
This all-too-common tragedy repeated itself in 1844, when Araminta, around twenty-two or twenty-four, married a freeman named John Tubman. It was either when they married, or shortly afterward, that Araminta Ross took the names of her mother as well as her husband. Perhaps this was a symbolic gesture, meant to represent the new life she was beginning, or the freedom she still wanted for her family suffering in bondage.
From that day forward, she would be called Harriet Tubman. Had circumstances allowed them to live without major upheaval for several years, Harriet probably would have worked alongside John to buy freedom for her mother, and, therefore, herself and all her siblings. Unfortunately, that would not be the way of things, and a more urgent course of action would be needed.
Though she was no longer the sickly child she used to be, Harriet still struggled with her health from time to time. In early 1849, she was ill again—this time, bad enough that she was too weak to work. After a point, Edward Brodess, her owner at the time, believed that she was no longer profitable to keep around.
So, he began the process of selling her to another slaveholder. This angered Harriet, particularly because it would take her away from her family, whom Brodess still refused to manumit. Several of Harriet’s siblings had already been sent down to the Deep South for plantation work.
But Harriet was too weak to act on her indignation. If she planned to flee from slavery at that point, it would have been impossible to go through with it. Helpless in her situation, Harriet fell back on the only thing she felt she could turn to: prayer.
She besought that God intercedes in her life, though she showed a remarkable amount of compassion in her prayers for her owner, and hoped he be made to change his ways for the better. This continued through several failed sales up until March 1st when it seemed that a purchase was pending a conclusion. After this point, Harriet’s prayers took on a more bitter character.
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She began to pray for God to take her owner out of her way—she prayed that he be killed. When Edward dropped dead a week later, Harriet saw it as divine providence on her behalf, and she felt guilty for having wished death upon him.
The death of the Brodess family’s head did not improve conditions for Harriet or her family. All of the man’s property went to his widow Eliza, including his slaves. Eliza was quick to begin selling off the slaves en masse. The rumor that spread among the other Africans was that a prospective buyer had been found and that none of them would be sold out-of-state, too far away from their families.
This cold comfort was enough for some, but not for Harriet. She reportedly experienced another vivid dream of horsemen tearing mothers from their children, and took this to be a vision of the grim future awaiting everyone on the plantation. The dream had a measure of truth to it, in that most estate settlements like this ended in the splitting of, at least, a few enslaved families.
In September 1849, the rumor reached Harriet that she and two of her remaining brothers might be sold in the next few days to a Deep South plantation gang. She met with her brothers, Ben and Henry, and tried to impress upon them the urgency of escaping north. It would be now, or probably never.
The plan they quickly and roughly hatched was to flee while they were still on the property of Anthony Thompson, who had borrowed the three of them from the Brodess family for work on his plantation of Poplar Neck, some distance away in Caroline County.
This way, it would take days for their disappearances to be known to Eliza Brodess, her owner, and they would ideally make a great deal of headway before being missed. The three siblings enacted their escape on the night of September 17th. Harriet Tubman would experience her first dangerous yet thrilling flirt with freedom.
As written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, one of the earliest and most influential Harriet Tubman scholars, the day leading up to their escape was when Harriet first made use of coded Gospel songs in order to alert other slaves to her clandestine actions. So, she sang:
“When that there old chariot comes,
I’m going to leave you,
I’m bound for the promised land,
Friends, I’m going to leave you.
I’m sorry, friends, to leave you,
Farewell! Oh, farewell!
But I’ll meet you in the morning,
Farewell! Oh, farewell!
I’ll meet you in the morning,
When you reach the promised land;
On the other side of Jordan,
For I’m bound for the promised land.”
The trio set off into the wilderness that evening, using Harriet’s familiarity with the Maryland landscape to move north secretly and safely. It would be two weeks before their disappearances were discovered and Eliza Brodess put a notice in a newspaper in nearby Cambridge. It gave crude details about their appearances, and promised a reward of up to three hundred American Dollars for their capture and return home.
Despite the good progress that they must have made, this first attempt at freedom was not successful. Ben and Henry were unfamiliar with the land they traveled through, and started to have reservations about leaving their family behind—Ben may or may not have been a father at the time.
Eventually, the two men decided to turn back and throw themselves upon the mercy of their masters. Sources differ on what Harriet decided to do next; either she pressed on without her brothers, or she was forced to return home with them for a short time. In either case, Harriet was soon making the trek north all by her lonesome.
The Underground Railroad
Harriet wasn’t alone for the entirety of her flight north, however. Long before she or other prominent abolitionists of the mid-1800s took the stage, there was already a surprisingly well-organized system in place for the rescue of enslaved people. This was the so-called Underground Railroad (UGRR), “underground” because of its secretive nature and “railroad” because of the coded rail transportation jargon used by its agents while escorting slaves to freedom.
The UGRR was a loose affiliation of abolitionists and their sympathizers founded in the late 1700s who gave transportation, safe haven, and supplies to escaped slaves. Together, they formed long trails through the United States to several destinations where slavery was fully abolished.
Some led west to Mexico, and in the past, they led south to Florida, back when it was a Spanish territory. But the most famous trails that Tubman would use led north.
Initially, they simply led to the northern states where slavery was abolished. But over time, slaveholding states pressured the federal government into passing the legislation, which forced officials in the northern states to cooperate with southern authorities in apprehending and returning escaped slaves.
These were the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Laws”, for the tracking dogs used by slave-hunters. When the northern states became unsafe to settle down in, the final destination for the northern branches of the UGRR became the British Empire’s province of Canada.
Each “conductor” of the Railroad only knew details pertaining to their link in the chain, and whom to send escapees to next. This ensured that, were one cell was ever found out by slave hunters or the authorities, they would be unable to crack down on the UGRR as a whole. This also meant that at no point during her journey did Harriet have a clear idea of what was coming next.
Nor do we know today the full story of what she experienced on her escape—Harriet was extremely tight-lipped about the details of the trails she used for most of her life because they needed to be secret to be used by other enslaved African Americans at the time. To reveal all of her stories to the public would have endangered countless escapees and abolitionists.
As a result of her silence, we know little about Harriet’s first journey north. We know that she was ultimately bound for Pennsylvania, about ninety miles away. It could have taken anywhere from less than a week to more than three.
She likely received help from white abolitionists, free and enslaved Africans, and other activists or sympathizers on her journey. Members of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, probably played a big role in the first leg of her journey because they were prevalent in the communities around the Poplar Neck plantation.
One known anecdote from her flight from Maryland illustrates how the conductors used deception to their advantage. Upon arriving at a safe house where it would be difficult to remain unseen all day, the female head of the household gave Harriet a broom and instructed her to sweep, so that she would look like an unassuming servant to passersby. Later that night, she was hidden in a wagon bound for her next stop.
Crossing the Line
Perhaps the most well-known part of Tubman’s escape was its ending. Sometime in the late summer of 1849, she crossed the border of Delaware into southern Pennsylvania, where the gradual abolition of slavery had begun in 1780. Here, she would not be entirely safe from slave-hunters, but she was as good as free.
For the first time in her life, she was in a place where the norm for her people was freedom and not enslavement. Harriet had not been exaggerating when she sang her song about going to the promised land. She later recounted having a feeling of divine awe as she crossed the border, saying:
“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.”
Harriet made her way to Philadelphia, where she would have finally had a moment of rest for the first time in weeks. She later described herself feeling like a “stranger in a strange land”, but she was free.
There were odd jobs there for her to support herself with, and she might have made a life for herself. There was even a vibrant African American community in Philly, descended from freedmen and former slaves alike, who took great care in helping new arrivals lacking that exact sort of crucial support network. It would have been the perfect place for a fresh start.
But Harriet’s thoughts immediately turned to other matters, as if she had not already been laboring over them during the journey north. Harriet was able to stay informed of what was happening back home in Dorchester County, and through her correspondence with family and friends, she knew that their plight was only getting worse.