Editor’s note: Launching on Tuesday, Feb. 1, and culminating on March 10, the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project pays tribute to this feminist icon with a special commemorative issue through Ms. online and in print. Explore the interactive groundbreaking site here.
Two hundred years ago, a child was born into chattel slavery. She grew up to become a liberator. Abolitionist. Diviner. Healer. Nurse. Naturalist. Freedom fighter. Military raid leader. Spy. Scout. Suffragist. Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. Aunt. Friend. National Icon. This is the legacy of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), born Araminta Ross, called Minty in her youth, and heralded as Moses in her extraordinary adult years of emancipatory action.
Harriet Tubman’s bicentennial birthday comes at a time when our nation and the world exist at a crossroads. Indeed, Isabel Wilkerson, the award-winning author of Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns, reminded us on social media that 2022 is a “turning point” in terms of the equally matched number of years in the United States—246 to be exact—between the practice of slavery (1619 to 1865) and the practice of democracy as an independent nation (1776 to 2022). Facing the uncertainties of climate crises and pandemics, wrestling over racial and political divides, reckoning with the “Me Too” response to sexual violence, and rethinking inclusive education, we are poised to move in different directions: to teeter backwards into the stranglehold of what the late bell hooks warned as “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” or to propel forward towards an anti-racist feminist future built on a firmer foundation of “justice for all.”
Tubman, who was once described by biographer Milton C. Sernett as a “litmus test” for diversity and inclusion, is an apt historical symbol for our current age—perhaps best represented when she won a popularity contest to place an historic woman on U.S. currency back in 2015. A redesigned $20 bearing her likeness on the front is set to rollout by or before 2030.
As I wrote in my book When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination: “Let us hope that, when Harriet Tubman is finally on our $20, we will have built a nation truly based in freedom, a freedom she never took for granted but forced the issue through self-emancipation and the emancipation of others.” Celebrating her bicentennial today is a reminder of this promise and her role as a catalyst for positive social change. She is the historical example we should follow as her narrative is one that must constantly be revived and rewritten.
The rewriting of history is just one of our many present-day struggles and a core theme of the game-changing and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project from the New York Times in 2019, spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship—carrying more than 20 captive Africans—that arrived at an English colony in North America. Beyond just serving as an American milestone, this moment also highlights the African Diaspora, as the captives originated from the Ndongo region of what is now Angola on the African coast before some were sold on the Caribbean Island of Jamaica and at Veracruz, Mexico. The remaining captives eventually arrived on the coast of Virginia before a final stop in Bermuda. Scattered across the Americas, these Africans would alter industries, cultures and generations of Black and multiracial communities.
While the 1619 Project highlights this date as the origin story of slavery in the United States, the captive Africans who disembarked in Virginia ironically became indentured servants who eventually earned their freedom. The year 1619 is less a marker of enslavement and more a trajectory of the transatlantic slave trade, a global enterprise that signaled the eventual dominance of Anglo-American commerce alongside other Western powers and the centuries-long dehumanization of African people. Severed from their previous status as daughters, sons, parents, siblings, spouses, cousins, villagers and townsfolk, captive Africans transformed into cheap commodities precisely because they possessed diverse skills that could be exploited—as farmers, builders, foresters, mariners, healers, midwives, cooks, dressmakers, musicians, prisoners of war, and enslaved and royal alike. They would eventually become “cargo” and “chattel.”
One such “cargo” arrived in the 18th century during the era of the American Revolutionary War from the Gold Coast of what is now Ghana to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she was sold into perpetual slavery. We do not know her African name (she was from the Asante people), but the slaveholder given legal authority over her called her “Modesty” (perhaps revealing what he thought of her—or what he didn’t). Slavery laws stipulated that all children born to enslaved women would inherit their mother’s “condition” in an economically convenient reversal of English patriarchal inheritance. This is how “race” would be constituted, shaped by gender politics. Such laws institutionalized reproductive slavery, often enabled by systemic sexual violence, the results of which can be measured by the increase in enslaved labor that numbered four million by the time of emancipation.
It is through such conditions that Modesty passed her enslaved status onto her children and grandchildren, a status more certain than any genetic defects the Western scientists of her day had imagined about the melanin-rich people of African descent. Out of this matrilineal heritage of slavery, Modesty had a daughter named Harriet, and that daughter had daughters (and sons too), one of whom became the legendary Harriet Tubman, who rejected this birthright for a bold new vision of freedom for herself, her kin, her community and her nation.
Modesty had a daughter named Harriet, and that daughter had daughters (and sons too), one of whom became the legendary Harriet Tubman, who rejected this birthright for a bold new vision of freedom for herself, her kin, her community and her nation.
If the 1619 Project challenges the origin story of America by exploring the meaning of slavery to this nation, the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project explores the meaning of freedom through the example of this one extraordinary life. This heroic individual is a testament to what Hannah-Jones wrote about Black people in the United States: “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
Who has better perfected U.S. democracy than Harriet Tubman herself?
Freedom Is a Birthright
The “founding fathers” of this democracy articulated ideals of liberty and justice, but we must look to the people they held in bondage who made those ideals concrete: from Ona Judge (enslaved by first president George Washington and his wife Martha) who ran away once she envisioned freedom for herself, to Sally Hemings—enslaved by third president Thomas Jefferson—who secured freedom for the children she had with him, if not for herself.
Despite the contradictions between enslavement and democratic freedom—an inconvenience that relied on anti-Black racism to justify economic exploitation—those of African descent recognized their own inherent value and their right to participate in this new democracy. If they didn’t outright rebel through uprisings, they became and/or aided freedom seekers resettling in free states or beyond U.S. borders. Or, they negotiated with enslavers to buy freedom for themselves and their loved ones.
By the time Tubman was born, Haiti—the first free Black republic, formed in 1804, that resulted from a successful slave uprising—was nation-building before inviting Black citizens in other parts of the Americas to migrate to the only country in the world that had permanently abolished slavery. A month or so after Tubman’s birth, the capital of Liberia was founded on the west African coast for the repatriation of formerly enslaved African Americans. And Denmark Vesey would be hanged with other rebels a few months later for plotting an insurrection in South Carolina.
The quest for freedom reverberated throughout her birth year, so is it any wonder Tubman would become the greatest freedom fighter of all? I make that claim bearing in mind that other great liberators of her century—from Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture to prophetic militant Nat Turner to slave ship insurrectionist Joseph Cinque—were either slain in their prime or captured. Harriet Tubman never got caught, and she lived to tell the tale. She died on March 10, 1913 at the age of 91.
It was during Tubman’s childhood, when everyone called her Minty, that a secret network of anti-slavery agents, long in existence, became known as the “Underground Railroad.” Named after the newly built railroad system crisscrossing the country, which began in 1830, it consisted of free and enslaved and Black and white allies who aided self-liberators to free states and Canada. During the decade of the 1850s, Tubman, who self-liberated from slavery in the autumn season of 1849, would return to the South 13 times to rescue approximately 70 people and pass instructions on to 70 more, thus becoming one of the most celebrated of the Underground Railroad agents, or “conductors.”
It was during Tubman’s childhood, when everyone called her Minty, that a secret network of anti-slavery agents, long in existence, became known as the “Underground Railroad.”
Tubman would later apply her skills as an Underground Railroad conductor in the service of the U.S. Civil War where she worked as a spy, scout and nurse. She also became the first woman in U.S. history to plan and execute a military raid when, on June 2, 1863, she led troops and their commander up the Combahee River in South Carolina, which subsequently freed over 750 people from slavery.
Harriet Tubman Had a Dream…
The poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs—who contributed an original poem to this bicentennial project—has characterized Tubman as a “dreamer,” reminding us that, before her victorious raid in 1863, she had already dreamed that “my people are free!” This phrase we had turned into a powerful mantra in the haiku-writing workshop that we had co-taught in June 2015 at a Harriet Tubman conference in the place of her birth in Cambridge, Maryland (the roots of which are reflected in the project’s public poetry tribute). As Gumbs suggests, “What impact might a dream like this … have had on Tubman and her confidence in the following year as she organized and led the largest, most collective act of resistance to slavery in her insurgent career?” (144)
Tubman had long been dreaming of freedom. Her dreams were among the visions she began receiving ever since she was severely injured as an adolescent by a near-fatal blow to the head from a two-pound weight thrown by an overseer at a neighborhood store. The debilitating seizures that resulted from this injury, for which she underwent surgery as an elderly woman, impacted her long life as they fueled visions that she interpreted as divine prophecies from God.
These religious beliefs reflect Tubman’s deep influence by the Second Great Religious Awakening that swept the country in her youth—from which sprang free Black churches like the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This movement also churned out quite a few Black women religious leaders, including the great Sojourner Truth.
Such inspiration led Tubman to forge a theological path away from slaveholders’ calls for obedience to the self-liberated faith of Quakers and Methodists. This spiritual enlightenment condemned slavery as immoral and elevated the individual’s right to freedom. Not only did Tubman dream of freedom for her people before 1863, she dreamed of her own freedom “in flight” before she confidently set out 100 miles to Philadelphia in 1849.
The absolute reduction of African-descended people to property, to “chattel,” chafed against Tubman’s values for herself and her family.
Tubman had already witnessed the different ways freedom could be obtained. In 1840, her father Ben Ross achieved freedom and property, and later, she negotiated wages for herself from her enslaver in hopes of buying her freedom while also marrying a free man, John Tubman, in 1844. She even hired a lawyer to investigate the terms of a will concerning her mother’s freedom, which was eventually bought by her father, who would also become an Underground Railroad agent. The absolute reduction of African-descended people to property, to “chattel,” chafed against Tubman’s values for herself and her family—having lost three sisters to the auction block—and she fled from slavery upon threat of being sold by her enslaver’s widow to settle debts. Tubman eventually achieved her fame through the same network that ushered her toward freedom.
Honoring Her Legacy
As tempting as it is to elevate Tubman on a pedestal, Vivian M. May cautions that we not view her as a lone savior but as “someone who worked within long-established networks of communication and resistance.” (33) Indeed, Tubman resolved to return to the South to free her family and friends, still enslaved in Maryland, because she languished alone in the free north. As Janet Mock reminds us, “Being exceptional isn’t revolutionary, it’s lonely.” Tubman became a revolutionary hero because she valued her sense of community more than her sense of exceptionalism.
Even if we were to exalt Tubman’s individuality, we could easily teach U.S. history centered around her story precisely because of her social networking. She seemed to have interacted with every major figure that mattered—if not personally then definitely by close proximity: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, William Still, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and various other Black club women. A game of “Six Degrees of Harriet Tubman” would help illustrate this point.
Incidentally, the bicentennial project includes a reflective essay by Amy Corron and Rebecca Rouse who co-taught a game design course that centered Tubman as an avatar. This is one of a number of features, which also include participatory activities—from a poetry tribute, as previously mentioned, to an interactive calculator configuring just a snapshot of the amount owed Tubman for her enslaved labor. Added to these are a history timeline, artwork by Nettrice Gaskins, and various essays by guest scholars scheduled throughout Black History Month and part of Women’s History Month, culminating with a list of resources called “Harriet Tubman Syllabus” on March 10, 2022, the anniversary date of Tubman’s passing.
She seemed to have interacted with every major figure that mattered—if not personally then definitely by close proximity. A game of “Six Degrees of Harriet Tubman” would help illustrate this point.
Biographers and historians—including Kate Clifford Larson, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Edda L. Fields-Black and Douglas V. Armstrong—reveal crucial data about her life history, her disability, her raid on Combahee River, and the life she made for herself and family in Auburn, New York. Michele Wallace explores Tubman’s representations in the artwork of her mother and artist Faith Ringgold, who is featured in a retrospective show this year at New York City’s New Museum. Ethnomusicologist Maya Cunningham has assembled a playlist to capture Tubman’s music history, while art historian Jonathan Michael Square explores Tubman’s fashion sense.
Still others, such as Keisha N. Blain, have examined her legacy in our present moment by exploring what it means to honor Tubman on a redesigned $20. Conversations with Tubman descendants, creatives, and experts also punctuate this project. However, the series kicks off the first week with a focus on Tubman’s visionary aims. Michelle D. Commander engages Afrofuturism as she analyzes Tubman’s speculative visions; while Chanda Prescod-Weinstein argues for Tubman to be recognized as a great astronomer, having followed the North Star on her various journeys to freedom. The essays, conversations and creative works featured in the bicentennial project invite us to recognize Tubman’s full life and her visionary brilliance.
Prescod-Weinstein, as it happens, became the lead scientist for a provocative article in the Scientific American, which advocated for the James Webb Space Telescope—launched on Christmas Day in 2021 and poised to capture images of the birth of our universe—to be renamed the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope. Given Tubman’s far-reaching freedom dreams, NASA—whose spacecrafts rely on the same celestial navigations she used—could have taken inspiration (but chose not to) by giving an unprecedented space telescope a shared name with someone who saw far beyond the limitations of her own slaveholding society and who held a perfect track record.
“I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad,” she once boasted to an audience of suffragists, “and I can say what most cannot: I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
As previously stated, we are at a crossroads, where we just might find Tubman’s lingering presence. She journeyed the Underground Railroad much like the trickster Eshu Elegba, the Yoruba orisha who dwells at the crossroads—who is sometimes likened to St. Peter holding the keys to heaven or even the devil. Some still might equate him (or her—their gender is sometimes ambiguous) with Jesus on the cross. Tubman herself maintained an unwavering Christian faith and spoke Christ’s words before dying: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Tubman perpetually crossed border lines, as dann J. Broyld reminds us, as well as lines of transgression: between the Slave South and Free North, the United States and Canada, the night of journeying and the day of safe hideouts, divinity and nature, trickery and righteousness, secrecy and proclamation, respectability and resistance, her healing touch and her life-ending pistol. She was the ultimate “bridge,” not in “this bridge called my back” way to which women of color are often reduced—as mammies, mules or “saviors of democracy”—but as a woman who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his novel The Water Dancer, possesses the gift of “conduction,” the building of bridges. A coalition broker.
Her Freedom Is Our Freedom
Born in either late February or early March in 1822, Tubman is the bridge between Black History and Women’s History months. She stood at the intersection of race and gender and ushered in freedom for all because her own freedom required it. As the Combahee River Collective—named for Tubman’s leadership—assert in their “Black Feminist Statement” (1977):
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Tubman understood this, which is why, a week before her death, she delivered a message through Black suffragist Mary B. Talbert during the national women’s suffrage march on March 3, 1913: “Tell the women to stand together for God will not forsake us!”
Unfortunately, many white suffragists chose racism and exclusion over unity, though radical Black feminists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett defied such divisiveness by asserting their rightful place in the fight for voting rights, gender equality, and racial justice. These same Black women fought to keep alive Tubman’s memory—from purchasing her headstone to resurrecting her name for civil rights and feminist movements—just as they fought to ensure this nation made democratic ideals a reality for all.
In this milestone year of the 50th anniversary of Ms. magazine, we salute a groundbreaking feminist and liberator who never lost sight of freedom. Not too invested in “Mrs.”—as Andréa N. Williams notes in an anecdote of Tubman’s humorous dismissal of the title (118)—Ms. Tubman will be remembered, not merely by the name of her first husband whom she left behind when she self-emancipated from slavery, but by the heroism she made synonymous with that name. She has stood the test of time through her incomparable example of bravery, fierceness, persistence, faith, self-assurance, compassion and commitment to solidarity. May her memory serve as a guiding light, much like the North Star she followed, steering us all in the right direction at this critical juncture.
Explore the brand-new Tubman 200 site, including a chronological progression of important dates in Tubman’s life; an interactive calculator to determine just how much the U.S. owes Tubman; an ongoing essay series from top experts and academics; and more.
The essay series for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is as follows:
Michelle D. Commander, “Let Me Not Forget: Harriet Tubman’s Enduring Speculative Visions” | Feb. 2
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Harriet Tubman, Astronomer Extraordinaire” | Feb. 3
The Life of Harriet Tubman
Kate Clifford Larson, “Harriet Tubman: A Life Beyond Myths” | Feb. 8
“Family Portraits of a Legend: Conversations with the Descendants of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 9
Deirdre Cooper Owens, “Harriet Tubman’s Disability and Why It Matters” | Feb. 10
The Untold Stories and Songs of Harriet Tubman
Edda L. Fields-Black, “‘Harriet’ and the Combahee River Uprising” | Feb. 15
A Conversation with Music Composer Nkeiru Okoye | Feb. 16
Maya Cunningham, “The Sound World of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 17
Imagining Harriet Tubman
Amy Corron and Rebecca Rouse, “Why Video Games Education Needs Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 22
A Conversation with Artist Nettrice Gaskins | Feb. 23
Michele Wallace, “Harriet Tubman in the Art of Faith Ringgold” | Feb. 24
Rediscovering Harriet Tubman
Jonathan Michael Square, “The Two Harriets” | March 1
A Conversation with Karen V. Hill, Director of the Harriet Tubman Home | March 2
Douglas V. Armstrong, “Using Archaeology to Rediscover Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom” | March 3
Celebrating a Legacy
Keisha N. Blain, “Justice and the Meaning of the Tubman $20” | March 8
A Conversation with Mary N. Elliott, Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian Museum | March 9
Harriet Tubman Syllabus | March 10
Questions or press queries about the series? Contact [email protected]