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Civil rights movement

The Moses of her people

Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and courageous African American activists in the last 200 years, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a nurse, a scout, a spy and a military leader. And at just five foot tall, illiterate and with few resources, she was fearless in helping and saving others from enslavement.

Born Araminta Ross in approximately 1822 and into enslavment, Tubman escaped in 1849 by walking 90 miles across country from Maryland to Philadelphia.

On arriving in Philadelphia, she would later recall:

"[M]y father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were [in Maryland]. But I was free, and they should be free.”

So she simply headed back to free them as well.

Over the next few years she she was to return – 13 times – to escort over 70 more families to freedom, earning herself the nickname “Moses of her people”. A further 70 families used her route and connections to plan their escape. Not once did she lose a family she was escorting to freedom.

Her heroics soon brought her into contact with several of the key abolitionist leaders of the time. She used Frederick Douglass’s home as a refuge for those escaping enslavement. With John Brown she helped plot the raid on Harper’s Ferry, to initiate a slave revolt by taking over a military arsenal. However she wasn’t present for the actual failed raid, with some saying she was ill in New York and others stating she was too busy planning more escapes – or that she had cold feet over the viability of the plan.

Her extensive knowledge of the South and her underground networks meant she was in a good place to learn and pass on information during the Civil War. While nominally working as a nurse, supporting men with small pox, she also acted as a scout and spy.

She linked up with General David Hunter, a strong abolitionist, and together plotted to create a regiment of black soldiers made up of the formerly enslaved. However, President Abraham Lincoln was not yet ready to enforce emancipation on the Southern states, and reprimanded Hunter for his actions. Tubman was furious, declaring that Lincoln would never win the war without giving Black people their freedom.

And so it proved to be. In January 1863 Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation and Tubman redoubled her efforts to defeat the Confederacy. The following year, she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman died with full military honours in Auben, New York in 1913 and in 2016 the Obama administration announced that she would be the new face of a redesigned $20 note, replacing Alexander Hamilton. However, in 2019 the Trump administration delayed this change until at least 2026.