Anti-slavery crusader and Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta Ross some time between 1815 to 1822. The range of her estimated birth is so long because records were not maintained for slave births. She lives a life of service and was recognized as the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, the first in the Post Office’s Black Heritage Series.
Tubman’s appearance on stamps was emblematic both of the progress made in recognizing African Americans’ contributions to American history and of the ongoing effort to put abolitionists on equal footing with slaveowners in the nation’s historical canon.
Born to separated parents Harriet and Ben Ross on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tubman was one of nine children. Known as “Minty” to her family and close friends, Tubman’s family struggled to stay together. Three of her sisters were sold to other slave owners, and Tubman was “loaned” out to other families on a regular basis as a tender-aged child under dangerous and unfavorable conditions.
Some time in her twenties, Tubman married a free Black man John Tubman. In honor of her mother Harriet or “Rit” as she was called, Tubman changed her name to Harriet, thus now known as Harriet Tubman. Marriages between free and enslaved Black people was common during the mid to late 19th century.
Tubman was a singular figure of the abolition movement, an enslaved woman who escaped captivity in Maryland and made at least 19 trips back to free more slaves. Tubman is estimated to have helped several hundred enslaved people find freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and is said to have “never lost a passenger.” During the Civil War, she freed 700 more when she led Union forces on a raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina. In her later life, though she had little money of her own, Tubman worked to house and feed the poor and became an important figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. Despite these extraordinary efforts, which earned her the epithet “the Moses of her people,” Tubman did not receive a pension for her services in the war until 1889 and died with little to her name.
Her deeds were not forgotten, however, and in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements there was a push to recognize overlooked figures like Tubman. Her inclusion in the Black Heritage Series put her alongside figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington and Jackie Robinson.
Despite being disabled as a teenager when an owner trying to stop the escape attempt of another slave, threw a large weight across a room, striking her in the head, Tubman achieved extraordinary things! Her life as a slave can only be described as cruel, inhumane, and abusive. Being just about 5 feet tall and small in stature and abused, she did not always receive the medical treatment that she required. Even after being accidentally hit in the head, she was not sent to a hospital for treatment, was sent back to work and suffered what we may call epileptic seizures foe the rest of her life. Despite her physical disability, Tubman had a string sense of community and justice. She freed herself on the 2nd attempt through the Underground Railroad and went on to free hundreds more, including her work with the Union army.
Justice delayed does not always mean Justice denied. In 2016, following years of calls from activists, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman’s face would replace that of President Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and avowed white supremacist, on the twenty-dollar bill. The following year, Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, delayed the switch, saying, “We’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.”
Although President Biden has only been in office for less than 30 days, his administration has prioritized recognizing Tubman’s accomplishments. In January 2021, President Biden’s administration announced they were taking steps to move forward with the redesign.
The facts and excerpts of this story are courtesy of History.com.