Harriet Tubman – Historic Personality of the 19th Century

Harriet Tubman – Historic Personality of the 19th Century

Of those who fought for the liberation of human beings from exploitation, Harriet Tubman is one of the greatest personalities of the 19th century. She was one of the most well-known conductors of the Underground Railroad, who liberated herself and organized the same for others in the fight against the system of slavery in the United States. Using the skills she learned to contribute to the liberation of the enslaved, she also became a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, leader, and nurse during the U.S. Civil War. She was also a naturalist, who used her knowledge of the natural and human environment to contribute to the cause of liberation of the enslaved.

Likely born in 1822, she grew up in an area of Maryland full of wetlands, swamps, and upland forests, which gave her the skills she used in her quest for freedom. Her parents were enslaved, and she was born into slavery. She worked alongside her family in timber fields and on the wharves in Maryland, where she learned how to use the natural environment to survive and navigate. Using such skills, she liberated herself in 1850 and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, making 13 trips back to Maryland from her new home in St. Catharines, Ontario, to contribute to the liberation of others. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison dubbed Harriet Tubman “Moses.”

Tubman’s Time in Canada

Tubman arrived in St. Catharines, Ontario in December 1851, as part of a group of 11 freedom seekers. After her arrival, she began fundraising and organizing for liberation missions. The trips back from Maryland were often undertaken on winter nights when slaveholders were indoors. Once in the north of the U.S., those who freed themselves would travel, often clandestinely, in baggage or freight cars to the Canadian border. According to a report in the Globe, Tubman led group of freedom seekers across the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and told them: “Shout, shout – you are free.”

Many of those Tubman aided — including members of her family — remained in St. Catharines. They became workers in the community in a variety of fields. By the mid-1850s, the community in St. Catharines comprised an estimated 500 to 800 residents. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the publisher of the Provincial Freeman newspaper, observed during a visit that the residents lived in “snug homesteads” and that “their success is a standing refutation to the falsehood that begging is needed for the fugitives of St. Catharines.”

Sculpture of Harriet Tubman at the Harriet Tubman Elementary in St. Chatherines Ontario

The community and its church, built in 1855, and schools, were a hub for those who had liberated themselves to organize for their prosperity and affirm their rights. For example, in 1854, Black waiters working in two major hotels in St. Catharines organized to overturn a ban on Black passengers using a coach (taxi) to get from the port of Dalhousie into St. Catharines. The workers held a meeting at which they resolved: “as waiters, at the public hotels, of St. Catharines, we will not continue in the service of our present employers, unless, in the management of their conveyances, they henceforth treat ourselves, and our people with that respect and civility, to which we are entitled, as men” (Provincial Freeman, August 12, 1854). They walked off the job, resulting in the ban being reversed.

Tubman lived in a home on North Street in St. Catharines, across from the Salem Chapel. She worked with local organizations, such as the St. Catharines Refugee Slaves’ Friend Society, and, in 1861, established the Fugitive Aid Society of St. Catharines. She also participated in clandestine organizing with John Brown in Southern Ontario to prepare a general slave revolt in the U.S. to end the system of slavery completely.

Statue of Harriet Tubman in the courtyard at Salem Chapel, St. Catherines, Ontario.

Tubman’s Role in the U.S. Civil War

Harriet Tubman returned to the United States and served as a volunteer in the Union Army during the Civil War. She was later sought out by the Governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, to lead a military mission to weaken the confederacy and liberate enslaved persons in the lowlands of South Carolina. Tubman organized a clandestine network to prepare for and carry out the mission of collecting information, recruiting soldiers, and carrying out sabotage. The mission was a complete success. A story written in the Wisconsin State Journal at the time, which did not mention Tubman, said “a gallant band of 300 soldiers under the guidance of a Black woman, dashed into the enemies’ country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary store, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of the rebeldom brought off bear 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch.” Despite later being recognized as a leader of the mission, Tubman never received recognition as a soldier nor a pension in her own right, instead getting a pension as a result of being the wife of a Union soldier.

The accolades and contributions to freedom and liberation of Harriet Tubman are too many to list here. Her courage and fidelity to the cause of liberation of the human person from all forms of oppression and servitude are an example to all those today who carry this torch under today’s circumstances. Long liver her memory!