Sometimes, people mute the stories of slavery, intentionally or unintentionally, because it was a long time ago and it seems so remote now, in 2016. Slavery ended in the 1860s, more than 150 years ago, and we have since seen multiple generations of black Americans born free. We tell a lot of stories about how slavery was, or how it wasn’t, but we don’t know, really, because we weren’t there. It still scars us, though, so much so that we sometimes come up with complicated myths to explain it away.
Harriet Tubman was there. Harriet Tubman was born a slave, but she would not die a slave, and because of her, a lot of other people lived and died free, too.
Harriet Tubman was born into bondage in Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. When Tubman was 5 years old, she was hired as a nurse for a local woman’s baby and brutally whipped every time the baby cried. When Tubman was a teenager, she refused to help a slaveowner restrain a slave who had left his property “without permission.” He hit her in the head with a 2-pound metal weight, breaking her skull. She was returned to the fields two days later, bleeding profusely. She would have seizures for the rest of her life, falling asleep while standing up and sometimes while speaking.*
And yet Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery after the death of her master, because, as she said, “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other." This is the notice posted by her master’s widow, offering $300 for the capture of Harriet (called “Minty”) and her brothers. She was forced to return, but escaped again, this time traveling 90 miles alone, using the Underground Railroad’s networks of anti-slavery activists to get to Philadelphia.
And then she went back. Nineteen times.
She rescued more than 300 slaves — men, women, and children — running through woods and swamps during the winter, when it was darkest. She was never caught, even when rescuing her own elderly parents. Again and again, Harriet Tubman battled slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the United States government, and she never lost, not once.
Harriet Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War, guiding gunboats around mines planted in the Combahee River and rescuing 750 slaves in the process. She planned that attack, by the way.
And after the Civil War, she was an activist in the fight for women’s suffrage, saying that she had “suffered enough” to believe that women deserved the right to vote, and traveling on speaking tours across the northeast with suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony. She lived to be 91 years old, dying in the rest home she’d created to care for poor and elderly black people.
Harriet Tubman didn’t see a dime for her services during the Civil War until 1899, but she did it anyway. She didn’t have to risk her life, time after time after time, to rescue total strangers, face down slave catchers, and lead entire families to freedom, but she did it anyway. Because slavery, and all forms of inequality, were fundamentally wrong to Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Tubman could not stand for it.
We’ve never experienced being beaten with whips, or having our skulls crushed with heavy weights, or seeing our brothers and sisters sold away because they were considered mere possessions. We’ve never experienced slavery, because Harriet Tubman — and thousands of others, whose names can be found in history books or have been lost to time — fought back. Because slavery was so wrong that the United States went to war with itself over it, and defeated it.
The currency of the country that once permitted and fomented her enslavement will now bear Harriet Tubman’s face. She will replace Andrew Jackson, a slave owner. When an early biographer asked Frederick Douglass for a letter honoring Tubman, he wrote, “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.” Now, finally, we will be, too.
*Near the end of her life, she had brain surgery, and refused anesthesia, choosing to bite down on a bullet instead.