Harriet Tubman will be the first black woman to have her face featured on American currency, a recognition befitting of her important contributions to American history.
According to Google, though, there are a lot of people who don't really know what those contributions were. Hours after the Treasury announced its plans to put Tubman's face on the $20 bill, searches for "who is Harriet Tubman?" spiked drastically.
Harriet Tubman was one of the most successful navigators of the Underground Railroad, helping some 70 slaves escape from plantations in Maryland to freedom in the north. But there's much more to Tubman's story that we don't talk about or celebrate nearly enough. Tubman wasn't just a woman guiding people from slavery in the middle of the night. She was a nurse, military tactician, and political activist who carried a pistol and a sword.
Put simply: Harriet Tubman was a badass.
Many tellings of Tubman's life paint her as something like a saintly American folk hero, but in reality, she was much more of a shrewd, smart, and pragmatic tactician. Born into slavery around 1820, Tubman (originally named Araminta Ross) grew up on a large plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland.
In her book Harriet Tubman: the Road to Freedom, University of Texas at San Antonio professor of American history Catherine Clinton describes how, at age 13, Tubman suffered from a brutal head injury during an altercation with a white overseer. Tubman, who'd been let off her plantation to go to a nearby grocery store, came across a slave owned by another family, who'd run away and was being chased.
When the overseer ordered Tubman to help him capture the other slave, she refused and as the slave ran away, the overseer tried to throw a heavy metal object at him. Instead of hitting the runaway slave, though, the object struck Tubman in the head.
When Tubman woke up, her owners unsuccessfully tried to sell her, then put her back to work in the fields. Tubman was forever changed. Aside from random seizures and fainting spells, she began having vivid dreams that she interpreted as messages from God.
According to Tubman historian Kate Clifford Carson, it's likely that what Tubman was probably experiencing were symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. It would be decades before Tubman was finally able to see a doctor about her neurological condition and when she did, it was determined that she would need invasive brain surgery to alleviate pressure in her skull. When asked whether she wanted anesthesia, Tubman refused, opting instead to bite down on a bullet.
To some extent, it was Tubman's visions that fueled both her spiritual faith and her commitment to the idea that slaves deserved freedom.
As an adult, Tubman eventually escaped from her own plantation before returning on 13 different occasions to guide family members and other slaves to freedom. We often speak about Tubman's navigation of the Underground Railroad as if she merely shuttled slaves from their plantations under the cover of night with only the stars and a lamp as her guide.
But while knowing the land and secret routes necessary to make her way back and forth, though, Tubman also understood the necessity of being a no-nonsense leader. She was known to carry a pistol along with her during her runs both to protect herself and her charges from threats, but also to deter any of the slaves she was guiding from turning back.
During a recent exhibition of some of Tubman's personal effects, Alex Brickler, descendant of Tubman, said that his family wasn't sure if Tubman ever actually used the gun. Rather, she carried weapons to send a message to the people around her.
“You know it’s a very threatening kind of a weapon, she was a spy so she may not have had direct recourse in order to use the saber," Brickler said of the three foot-long sword she carried during the Civil War. "But you know if you’re walking around the south in the woods with a big saber like that people are gonna take notice and they’ll be out to not necessarily threaten you as much."
Running away often meant being chased by slave owners or bounty hunters. Faced with the fear of being recaptured, coupled with the physical and psychological stress posed by literally running miles, it stands to reason that some people might have had second thoughts. Tubman, however, did not.
During the Civil War, Tubman first assisted in the Union's efforts as a nurse, tending to soldiers, but in time her skills navigating through hostile territory were recognized as being an invaluable asset.
Not only did Tubman help the Union gather important topographical information and spy on the Confederates, she was also the first woman to head a brigade of armed soldiers in the Civil War. Together with Colonel James Montgomery, Tubman led a series of successful raids on plantations running alongside the Combahee River in South Carolina, freeing over 700 slaves in the process.
The specifics of the story are complicated and best explained to you by Drunk History:
Tubman went on to become an ardent supporter and activist in the women's suffrage movement, traveling across the nation to speak about the contributions that she and countless other women made during the Civil War. As she grew into old age and her health began to fail, Tubman remained focused on reaching out to her local black community with a particular emphasis on the elderly and poor.
Moments before she died of pneumonia in 1913 at the age of 91, she quoted the Bible to her gathered friends and family, telling them that "I go to prepare a place for you."