What person who has labored their whole life for freedom, will, when they achieve it, risk captivity and death to help other people receive freedom? Only one who believes in freedom so strongly that they will risk their own life to save the lives of others. Harriet Tubman was one such person.
Born into slavery in Maryland in the 1820’s, Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she was called, lived a traumatic life. At the age of five or six, Minty’s master hired her out to a woman named Miss Susan. Minty’s job was to care for Miss Susan’s baby and rock it’s cradle while it slept. If the child awoke and cried, Minty was whipped. The pain was unbearable and at one point she ran away and evaded capture for five days. Later, Minty also worked for a plantation owner named James Cook. Here, her job was to check the muskrat traps in the marshes, even after she contracted measles. She eventually became so ill that Cook sent her back to her master, who allowed Minty’s mother to nurse her back to health. As she got older, she was sent to the fields to do the work of plowing, driving oxen, and hauling logs.
It was while she was a teenager that she suffered a severe head injury when she was accidentally hit by a two pound metal weight that an overseer threw at another slave who was attempting to escape. As a result of the injury, she suffered from terrible headaches and seizures for the rest of her life. After her injury she also started to experience dreams and visions that she believed came from God. Her faith grew, and although illiterate, she learned Bible stories from relatives. She found especial comfort in the Old Testament stories of deliverance.
When she was in her twenties, she married a free Black man named John Tubman. It was around this time that she changed her name, adopting her mother’s name, Harriet. A few years later, Harriet became ill again and her master tried, without success, to sell her. Shortly afterwards, her master died, and his widow started to sell all of the household slaves. Harriet didn’t wait for her mistress to decide her fate, on September 17, 1849, Harriet along with two of her brothers, escaped. Then her brothers had second thoughts, one of them having just become a father, and they returned, forcing Harriet to return with them.
Soon after this, Harriet escaped again, this time by herself. She was aided along the way by the Underground Railroad, an informal organization of people of all colors and walks of life who believed in the right to freedom for all people. She travelled by night, using the North Star to guide her and trying to avoid slave catchers. When at last she reached Pennsylvania, a free state, she was overcome with awe and later recalled:
“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.”
When she reached Philadelphia, she thought of her family. Now that she was free, all that she wanted was for them to be free as well. She worked odd jobs, saving her money in the hopes that she could someday assist her family in obtaining freedom. During this time, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which increased penalties for helping slaves escape and for refusing to turn them in even in free states. This law caused more and more escaped slaves to seek refuge in Canada. That December, with the help of several other people, Harriet was able to assist her niece and her niece’s two children to escape and find safety in Philadelphia. The next year she returned to Maryland and helped lead several more family members to freedom. With each trip back to Maryland, Harriet became more confident. She earned the nickname of “Moses” because she led slaves out of captivity just like Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.
Working with the many unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, Harriet guided many groups to freedom. It is even possible that on one occasion, she and a group of escaped slaves stayed with abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In his writings, Douglass admired Harriet’s courage stating:
“The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”
One of Harriet’s last trips to Maryland was to rescue her aging parents. Although her father had been freed some years before and had eventually been able to purchase the freedom of his wife, Harriet’s mother; they were still treated with hostility. When Harriet received word that her father was in danger for harboring escaped slaves, she returned to Maryland to guide him and her mother to safety in Southern Ontario where several others of their family had fled. She continued her work for many years, and even when she was no longer guiding people to freedom herself, she supported the work of the Underground Railroad, anti-slavery abolitionists, and others who were fighting for freedom for all people.
Harriet Tubman’s strong faith, ingenuity, and bravery attest to the fact that God can redeem anyone’s past, regardless of their pain and brokenness. Harriet Tubman lived a long, hard life and suffered more than most people today will ever be able to understand, but she refused to give up. While she could have been content in obtaining freedom for herself, she continued time and time again to put her own life in danger to rescue the lives of others. She is an example for all of us of how to really take a stand for what we believe in, regardless of the potential consequences.
Whatever your past, whatever you’ve suffered, God is not done with you. He has a plan for you, and maybe that plan involves helping others who have been through what you’ve been through. He has a way of making beauty from ashes and turning our pain into our purpose, and someday, all of the pieces of this puzzle we call life will make sense.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.