Harriet Tubman


Born into slavery in Maryland around 1822, Harriet Tubman emancipated herself as a young woman and found safe haven in Philadelphia. She later returned to the slave-holding South to guide other enslaved people to freedom, making at least 13 journeys as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman continued her work for abolition throughout the Civil War and served the United States Army as a nurse, a spy, a scout, and a leader. Join Active Minds as we explore the life and legacy of a remarkable woman remembered as “the Moses of her people.”

Key Lecture Points

  • Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross around 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. She was held in bondage by Anthony Thompson and later Edward Brodess along with other members of her family, often hired out to neighboring farms in the area. During one such time in 1849 while hired out to a farm about 40 miles from her home, she seized an opportunity to emancipate herself. She journeyed to Philadelphia where she worked as a domestic and saved money to aid her family back in Maryland.
  • Beginning in 1850, Tubman made at least 13 journeys back into Maryland to aid in the emancipation of family and friends. She led 60-70 people to freedom making use of the Underground Railroad, an extensive network of routes, safehouses, and people engaged in the civil disobedience of aiding freedom seekers.
  • When the Civil War broke out, Tubman served the U.S. Army as a nurse, a scout, a spy, and a leader. Her role in the Combahee River Raid in 1863 makes her the only woman known to had led a military maneuver during the war.
  • She settled in Auburn, NY where she housed and supported many family members and the larger community. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and efforts to provide for formerly enslaved people though the Freedmen’s Bureau. She eventually opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged next to her residence but was unable to fund the operation of the facility. The AME Zion Church took over this responsibility for Tubman.
  • Because of her charitable giving and lack of her own military pension for her war service, Tubman struggled with poverty for the rest of her life. Early biography efforts were designed to raise funds for her.
  • Despite numerous accounts of Tubman’s life in children’s and young adult biographies as well as popular culture, many myths and misconceptions remain about the factual events of her life. Recent biographers and the National Park Service are working to responsibly preserve her legacy.

Exploration Questions

  • How was Harriet Tubman able to seek her own freedom? How did her experienced as an enslaved woman help her in the aid of others?
  • What roles did Harriet Tubman fill during the Civil War? Why was she so successful in these roles?

Reflective Questions

  • What does it mean to risk your own life for the safety of others? Is this something all people are capable of?
  • What is the role of popular memory in honoring figures of the past? Is it possible for a person’s achievements to be overshadowed by their legacy?

More to Explore

  • National Women's History Museum biography of Harriet Tubman Click here
  • National Park Service site discusson of Underground Railroad Click here
  • American Heritage magazine article on the study of Harriet Tubman Click here
  • Digital copy of Sarah Hopkins Bradford's 1869 biography of Harriet Tubman Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Clinton, Catherine.  Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.  Back Bay Books, 2005.  304 pages.  Comprehensive biography of Tubman highlighting major accomplishments as well as questions about how much of Tubman’s life we can really know.
    Click here to order
  • Larson, Kate Clifford.  Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. One World, 2004. 432 pages. Thorough biography of Tubman that discusses the icon’s context within the 19th Century and the realities of slavery in Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Painstakingly researched with an eye toward dispelling myths and clearing up misconceptions.
    Click here to order
  • Foner, Eric.  Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.  W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. 352 pages. Fresh perspective on the Underground Railroad from one of the nation’s premier experts of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
    Click here to order