Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

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Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
04.08.2020
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American history provides numerous examples of heroism and dedication. In a midst of the political turmoil that would eventually divide the country into two opposing camps, a former slave and member of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman made a great contribution to the abolitionist cause by freeing hundreds of slaves from the burden of oppression. The evidence suggests that a brave woman exhibited a mixture of rare traits such as modesty, intelligence, and determination.

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Several historical documents and widely shared opinions of historians allow shedding the light on the significance of the Underground Railroad within the larger political context. Upon her successful escape from slavery and arrival to Pennsylvania in 1849, Harriet Tubman joined the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee and became a close associate of William Still, a free-born black man who chaired it. Tubmans joining the organization that helped the fugitive slaves coincided with the rapid rise of the abolitionist movement across the Northern states. The Haiti revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the establishment of the first black republic in 1797 inspired the black population of the United States and white supporters of abolitionism. During the following decades and until the Civil War, the prominent advocates of racial equality made a comprehensive contribution to the growth of the antislavery movement. By 1840, about 200,000 active members of 2,000 antislavery organizations were willing to break the law and sought practical ways to help the cause. The result was the escape route for the fugitive slaves that essentially represented a far-reaching and well-organized network of people who hid the escapees, provided them with shelter, food, and clothes as well as the information about the next point of destination during their travels to the Northern states. The academics seem to disagree on the exact date and factors that accelerated the formation of the Underground Railroad. Some researchers link this phenomenon to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The notorious document granted the newly established office of Slave-Catcher the power to locate, arrest, and return the fugitives to their owners. The captured slaves had no legal right to appeal to the court and defend their freedom, while the known concealers of the runaways faced the threat of 1,000 dollars fine or incarceration for six months. Clearly, the federal government strived to suppress the antislavery movement by denying the black slaves the basic human rights to freedom and legal defense.

Nevertheless, Harriet Tubman did not hesitate to take an active part in the rescue missions. Her career started with the successful retrieval of Harriets sister Mary and her family from slavery in 1850. Between 1851 and 1857, Tubman made two trips to the South every year. According to her close associate and first biographer Sara H. Bradford, during 19 trips to the dangerous territory, Harriet managed to help 300 slaves to escape the dreadful life of constant oppression.

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Given the historical significance of Tubmans actions, one may be compelled to examine the personal experiences of the heroine to understand her character and motivations. In fact, the early years of her life do not reveal any events that would predict Tubmans future role in saving the lives of numerous black fugitives. Slaves frequently undertook the risky escape attempts due to abuse, unjustified punishment, and cruelty. At that time, such misdemeanors as disobedience, direct criticism of slave-owners and rebellion were the reasons for severe punishments. Tubmans experience with slaveholders was similar. Since early childhood, she was hired by local white families to conduct the household chores and was severely beaten for any misbehavior. As an adolescent, Harriet was known as a hard field worker and witnessed the overall excitement among her compatriots caused by the rumors of Ned Turners revolt in 1831. As a consequence, this event largely contributed to the general recognition of the slaves capacity to oppose the oppressors.

Harriets life as a wanted fugitive started soon after marriage. By 1849, 27-year-old Harriet had already married a free black man John Tubman and faced the fear of being sold to work on the plantations in the Deep South. She succeeded to avoid that destiny only after the second solitary attempt to escape and received the help from the known concealer of fugitives. The local white woman gave her shelter and the instructions on the next safe house on the Tubmans way to the North. In fact, this episode was Harriets first encounter with the famous conductors of the Underground Railroad and the manifestation of determination to achieve liberation. According to Tubmans own admission, the heroine vowed that no men should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty, as long as my strength lasted. Thus, these words indicate that Harriet cherished freedom more than any other luxuries.

The story of Harriet Tubman is surrounded by the aura of mystery due to the lack of documented sources about her life. However, a scarce number of remaining documents give a reason to believe that religion played a crucial role in Harriet Tubmans life. According to Humez, Harriets family was blissfully ignorant about the common practice of exploiting the church as a tool of justifying the outrageous treatment of black slaves by the plantation owners. Therefore, strong adherence to Christian values has become the abundant source of strength that nourished Harriets longing for freedom and her struggle against the grave injustice of the southern slaveholders. In numerous instances, Tubman attributed her success only to Gods protection. In her own words, Harriet placed her life in the hands of the divine power by pledging, When the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me. On other occasions, the spiritual songs helped Harriet to calm the scared fugitives. When the nervous tension was unbearable, Tubman and her group started to sing the prayer Oh go down, Moses, Way down into Egypts land, Tell old Pharaoh Let my people go as a means to reassemble the required strength to continue the trip.

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Similarly, the deep faith in Christian values compelled Harriet to refrain from searching for the public acknowledgment of her accomplishments and pursue spiritual virtuousness. In his private correspondence with the renowned conductor, Frederick Douglass wrote, Heartfelt God bless you has been your only reward. It is obvious that the famous abolitionist justly emphasizes overall modesty of Harriet Tubman. Meanwhile, the heroine worried about staying unstained by anger or revenge. At the age of 15, Tubman received a head trauma while trying to help the escaping slave. Upon hearing about the masters decision to send her further to the Southern states, Tubman asked God to kill the cruel man. The traumatized adolescent felt entitled to express anger. Nevertheless, the teenager immediately felt the deep guilt after receiving the news of the masters death later. According to Bradford, the horror-struck girl exclaimed, to bring that poor soul back, I would give myself; I would give everything! Therefore,the mentioned examples clearly illustrate Harriets strong adherence to the high spiritual standards of Christianity.

Interestingly, a number of historical facts indicate that Harriet Tubman possessed a sharp mind and talent for disguise neatly hidden behind the image of the God-fearing woman. Apparently, such factors as the first-hand experience with the members of the Underground Railroad and good knowledge of territory allowed the famous rescuer to achieve success in her risky ventures while saving the black slaves from her native areas. By 1850, Tubman had already developed her own routes and methods that allowed her to lead the groups of escapees. She passed a relatively safe state of Delaware on her way to Maryland and stopped at the Underground Railroad stations while conducting so-called passengers. Additionally, Tubman knew good places for hiding, including drainage ditches, hedges, and abandoned sheds or tobacco barns. Accordingly, it is clear that Harriet was determined to become a professional guide.

During her expeditions, Harriet Tubman developed and implemented a wide range of techniques that ensured the success of operations. Taking into consideration the situation, the methods of rescuing varied from a calm departure to trickery and threats. During her first assignment, the rescuers used the forged official document to save Harriets brother-in-law and his family from the slave auction, provided shelter in the Quakers residence and sent them to a safe place by boat. At the doors of the safe house, Tubman used the password I am friend with friends and could anticipate the hospitality of its residents. Since this occupation demanded to maintain secrecy, Harriet often employed extreme methods. In cases of slaves inability to continue the trip due to harsh conditions, she threatened the tired slaves with the gun and said, Dead niggers tell no tales; you go on or die! This particular approach reveals Harriets knowledge about the strength of the peoples instinct of self-preservation.

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In conclusion, the provided testimonies and established facts leave no doubt that Harriet Tubman is a prominent historical figure. Given her social status and dreadful experience of enslavement, her career of the Underground Railroad conductor emphasizes the importance of individual contribution to the righteous cause. During her work in the abolitionist organization, Tubman revealed her true nature of a kind-hearted woman, excellent planner, and intelligent individual.

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