Born in 1822 in Maryland and originally named Araminta Ross, Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Minty” by her parents, later adopting the name Harriet after her first marriage. She was one of nine children. Three of Harriet’s sisters were sold to distant plantations, severing the family’s ties.
Harriet suffered repeated physical violence in her early life causing permanent injuries. She recounted a particular time when she was lashed five times before breakfast, carrying the scars on her skin as a lasting reminder. In another incident, she encountered a slave who left the field without permission and the overseer demanded Harriet help restrain the runaway. When Harriet refused, the overseer threw a 2-lb weight which struck her in the head, causing seizures and severe headaches for the rest of her life.
Harriet escaped to freedom in 1849, arriving in Philadelphia. She returned to Maryland to free her family members. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips between the American south to the north, following the Underground Railroad network. She guided over 300 enslaved Black persons, including her parents, from slavery to freedom, and was nicknamed “Moses” for her leadership.
During the Civil War, Harriet worked as a nurse, a scout, guerrilla soldier, and a spy for Union forces. Harriet was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. She guided the Combahee River Raid which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. Harriet petitioned the U.S. government to be paid for her heroic efforts like any other soldier, but was denied because she was a woman. She eventually received a military pension, but only as the widow of a Black Union soldier.
Following the Civil War, Harriet became active in the women’s suffrage movement, joining Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She believed in the equality of all people, black or white, male or female, and so was empathetic to women’s rights movements that emerged after the war. She also worked to establish schools for formerly enslaved persons in South Carolina.
In the late 1890s Harriet underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to try to relieve the pains and buzzing in her head due to earlier injury by the plantation overseer. In Harriet’s words, the doctor “sawed open [her] skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable.”
True to her grit, Harriet received no anesthesia for the procedure and instead bit down on a bullet as she had seen Civil War soldiers do during amputations.
Harriet passed in 1913 at approximately 90 years of age. In April 2016, efforts were introduced to place Harriet on the front of the $20 bill. The final design of the currency was to be unveiled in 2020 for the centennial of the 19th amendment establishing women’s suffrage, but was delayed in 2019. The efforts have been resumed in 2021.