Harriet Tubman is Born
Harriet Tubman is born sometime in late February or early March and is named Araminta Ross, the fifth out of nine children born enslaved to Harriet “Rit” Green (ca 1785-1880) and Benjamin “Ben” Ross (ca. 1780-1871), both enslaved, in Dorchester County, Maryland. Also this year: On April 25, Monrovia, capital of Liberia, is founded by the American Colonization Society for the repatriation of U.S.-born and formerly enslaved African Americans. On July 2, Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) is hanged with 34 other men for plotting a slave insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina.
Minty’s Early Childhood
Araminta is nicknamed “Minty” as a child. Around this time (1824-1826), Minty, her mother, and siblings are separated from her father Ben and moved ten miles away to Bucktown to live with a different enslaver, Edward Brodess (1801-1849). Also this year: After seizing control of all of Hispaniola, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1776-1850) invites African Americans to emigrate to Haiti, the first nation in the world to permanently abolish slavery after it had won its independence in 1804 after warring with France. Thousands depart in 1824 and continue through 1826.
Minty’s Sister is Sold
Minty’s fourteen-year-old sister, Mariah Ritty (aka Rhody), is sold by Brodess to a Mississippi slave trader. The family never sees her again. Also this year: Haitian President Boyer agrees to pay France 150 million francs in slavery reparations – including for every enslaved person lost during the Haitian war for independence – in exchange for international recognition of the country’s sovereignty and to avoid another war. This debt will devastate Haiti economically before it is paid off over one hundred years later.
Two Founding Fathers Die on July 4
On July 4, the second and third U.S. presidents, John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1843-1826), die within hours of each other, both men’s legacies secured as “founding fathers” of the nation. Jefferson’s legacy is further secured as author of the Declaration of Independence and the biological ancestor of both white and Black descendants, having children respectively with his wife Martha Jefferson (1748-1782) and his wife’s enslaved half-sister Sally Hemings (1773-1835), the latter who was one of over 600 bondspeople owned by Jefferson.
Minty is Leased Out
From 1827 to 1831 and after, Minty is frequently leased by Brodess to different neighboring farmers, who subject her to physical abuse while she works domestic, childcare, and farm duties, in addition to trapping muskrats. She frequently falls sick due to neglect, and she deeply misses her mother and siblings.
David Walker Makes His Appeal
Free Black abolitionist David Walker (1796-1830) publishes the pamphlet, An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which calls for the enslaved to rebel against their enslavers.
Indian Removal Act
On May 28, President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) signs the Indian Removal Act into law as the nation expands its borders and subsequently turns indigenous lands in the southeast into slave plantations. The “Trail of Tears” begins when the Cherokee are forced to give up their Georgia homeland and are marched westward at gunpoint toward Oklahoma territory. Thousands die. Some Cherokees bring with them the enslaved African Americans that they own.
A Year of Liberators
– On January 1, white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) launches the newspaper The Liberator (running from 1831-1865). – In February, Mary Prince (1788-after1833) from Bermuda becomes the first Black woman to publish a slave narrative. – On August 21, an enslaved uprising in Southampton, Virginia, led by Nat Turner (1800-1831), leads to multiple deaths of enslavers and a subsequent crackdown on enslaved communities, including new restrictive slave laws. Turner is executed for his part in the insurrection.
The Night of Meteor Showers
On the night of November 12, the Leonid meteor shower, which frightens Minty, is visible throughout the Western hemisphere. Minty witnesses it with one of her brothers when sneaking out in the night to visit her mother Rit, who had been leased by Brodess to Mills plantation. The meteor storm terrifies almost everyone who sees it, believing it signaled the “end of the world.” The event intensifies the Second Great Religious Awakening that swept the country during this era and increases the scientific interest in astronomy.
British Abolition of Slavery
On August 1, the United Kingdom abolishes slavery in the British colonies, including Canada.
Minty is Severely Injured
In her early adolescence (sometime between 1834 and 1836), Minty suffers a life-threatening injury while on an errand to a neighborhood store when an overseer misses his target, subsequently striking her in the head with a two-pound weight. This near-fatal injury leads to lifelong debilitating seizures that Minty believes give her messages from God, beliefs influenced by the Second Great Religious Awakening that flourishes with Black women religious leaders: Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), Zilpha Elaw (ca.1790-1873), and Jarena Lee (1783-1864).
Women Write Their Political and Religious Views
– Angelina Grimke Weld (1805-1879) rebels against her white slaveholding family in South Carolina when she writes the pamphlet, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, urging Southern women to oppose slavery. She and her sister Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) join the Quakers and the abolitionist movement, but like Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) who was the first American-born woman and Black woman speaking in public, they are criticized for speaking publicly as women. – Jarena Lee becomes the first African American woman to publish a book-length autobiography.
From 1837-1840, Minty recovers from her head injury and regains her strength. Brodess leases her to a slaveholder in Madison, near where her father is living and working. She works as a domestic, a field hand, and a dock worker. On the wharves, she meets and learns valuable information from Black seamen and dock workers who tell her about the Underground Railroad. Her father teaches her survival skills to live off the land and navigate the region’s forest, fields, and waterways without being noticed. Minty, her mother, and brothers live and work with Ben during this time.
Abolitionism Intensifies at the Dawn of the Victorian Age
– Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), born Frederick Bailey, escapes from slavery in Baltimore with help from his free wife, Anna Murray (1813-1882). They settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a haven for freedom seekers and a hotbed of anti-slavery activism. He changes his name in freedom and becomes friends with William Lloyd Garrison. – Anti-slavery societies flourish across cities in the North. – On June 28, the coronation of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) ushers in the Victorian Era. She will rule the United Kingdom and its empire for 64 years.
Amistad Slave Ship Rebellion
Joseph Cinque, or Sengbe Pieh (ca.1814-1879) of the Mende people, leads an insurrection on the Spanish slave ship Amistad en route to Cuba. The ship is later brought into custody by the United States, and Cinque and his fellow surviving Africans are tried for mutiny and murder of the ship’s crew. They are eventually acquitted for defending themselves against slavery on board an illegal slave ship in The United States v. Amistad Supreme Court decision. Americans raise funds to help them return to Sierra Leone.
Minty’s Father is Freed
– Tubman’s father Ben is manumitted and given ten acres of land around his house. – In June, the World Anti-Slavery Convention takes place in London. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) attend, but as women, they are forbidden to speak publicly.
Two More Sisters of Minty Are Sold
During this time (1841-1843), Minty’s sisters, Linah (ca. 1808-unk.) and Soph (ca. 1813-unk.), are sold by Brodess to the Deep South. He keeps their small children, whom he tries to later sell. Minty and her family are devasted. Brodess tries to sell Minty’s youngest brother Moses (ca. 1832-unk.), but Rit threatens to kill Brodess, so he backs down, and Moses is saved.
Minty Marries and Becomes Harriet Tubman
Minty marries a free man, John Tubman (1818-1867), and changes her name after marriage to her mother’s name, Harriet. She has already negotiated a contract with her enslaver, giving him money to hire herself out to other slaveholders for wages so that she can earn enough money to pay him and buy her freedom. Also this year: Physician J. Marion Sims (1813-1883), inventor of the speculum, begins his medical experiments on the enslaved women Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy in Alabama, which last approximately four or five years.
Frederick Douglass’s Narrative
Frederick Douglass publishes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which details his life under slavery before he escapes to freedom.
Mexican-American War Begins
The United States declares war on Mexico over disputed territories.
Harriet Tubman’s Legal Battle for Freedom
– Tubman discovers that her mother should have been set free in 1830 as part of the terms of an old will. She hires a lawyer to investigate, sparking a ten-year lawsuit amongst the heirs named in the will. These legal documents detail the history of the Ross family. Also this year: – On July 26, the American colony Liberia becomes an independent nation. – In December, Douglass starts his abolitionist newspaper The North Star in Rochester, New York, which runs until 1851.
French Abolition and Women’s Rights
– On April 27, France abolishes slavery in its colonies. – After two years of the Mexican-American War, the United States expands its territories in the southwest. – The first women’s rights convention in the United States is held from July 19-20 at Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton and Mott are among the organizers for the event, as they had both resolved to address women’s rights when they were excluded from the World Anti-Slavery Convention.
Harriet Tubman Escapes from Slavery
Harriet Tubman attempts escape from slavery twice when Brodess dies, and his widow threatens to sell her to settle debts. She and two brothers, Ben and Henry, who set off on September 17, are featured in a runaway ad seeking $300 for their recapture. They eventually return when they lose their way, but Tubman later runs off by herself, this time successfully reaching freedom in Philadelphia. She meets and becomes allies with William Still (1821-1902), a “station master” on the Underground Railroad.
Fugitive Slave Law and Tubman’s First Rescue
– On September 18, Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law, empowering enslavers to recapture formerly enslaved fugitives who have settled in free states. – Sojourner Truth publishes her autobiography Narrative of Sojourner Truth. – In December, Tubman executes her first rescue mission: the liberation of her niece Kessiah Jolley Bowley and her two children. Her work as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad – guiding others directly or giving out instructions on the way north – will take place over the course of the decade.
Tubman’s Husband Has Moved On
Tubman returns to Maryland for her husband John Tubman, only to discover he has moved on with another woman, which leaves her devastated. She continues her rescue missions, including ushering her brother, Moses, and other freedom seekers across the Niagara Falls border to Canada. She seeks shelter from Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York, along the way. Also this year: Sojourner Truth delivers a speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, held on May 29, that will be immortalized years later as “Ar’n’t I a Woman?”
Tubman Spends Summer at Cape May
– Tubman spends the summer at Cape May in New Jersey, which becomes a resort for well-to-do Black abolitionists, including the Banneker House, a Black-owned hotel. Later in the fall, Tubman rescues nine freedom seekers from the Eastern Shore and guides them to Canada. Also this year: – White abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) publishes in March her international bestselling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The World of Black Literature
– On March 24, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) becomes the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which caters to the free Black community that settled in Canada. The newspaper runs until 1857. – In the spring, Solomon Northup (1808-ca.1863) publishes his narrative Twelve Years a Slave. – In December, formerly enslaved abolitionist William Wells Brown (ca.1814-1884) publishes the first African American novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, a fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter with Sally Hemings.
Tubman Rescues Her Brothers on Christmas
On Christmas day, Tubman dramatically rescues her brothers Ben, Henry, and Robert, and several friends from the Eastern Shore and leads them to Canada. The brothers choose Stewart as their new surname in freedom. Tubman’s father Ben remains in Maryland and becomes an Underground Railroad agent. Also this year: Congress signs into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reverses the Missouri Compromise (1820) and turns the new territory of Kansas into a battleground between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates called “Bleeding Kansas.”
Tubman Rescues More and Her Mother is Freed
– In the spring, Tubman returns to the Eastern Shore to guide her sister-in-law and two nephews to Canada. – In June, Tubman’s father Ben purchases her seventy-year-old mother Rit’s freedom. – Also in June, a young, enslaved woman called Celia is arrested and tried for the murder of her sexually abusive enslaver in State of Missouri v. Celia. She is convicted and hanged for the crime by the end of the year. – During the late fall, Tubman helps two friends escape.
Margaret Garner Takes Drastic Measures and Tubman Continues Rescuing
– During the winter in Cincinnati, freedom seeker Margaret Garner (1834-1858) kills one of her four children to prevent her return to slavery in Kentucky. – On May 14, abolitionist Sydney Howard Gay describes “Captain Harriet Tubman” escaping from Dorchester County, Maryland with four men who arrive in New York City. – In October, Tubman rescues an enslaved woman named Tilly from Baltimore in a daring escape by steamship and passing as free women of color. In November, she helps liberate three men and a woman.
Tubman Rescues Her Parents
– In the spring, Tubman rescues her parents from the Eastern Shore, after Ben Ross is implicated in the escape of a group of enslaved people called the Dover Eight and is threatened with arrest. Tubman settles them in her home in St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada. Also this year: – On March 6, the Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court decision denies African Americans’ rights to citizenship. – In October, forty-three enslaved people escape from Cambridge, Maryland, including twenty children and six infants. They follow Tubman’s instructions north.
Tubman Meets John Brown
Tubman meets with white abolitionist militant John Brown (1800-1859) in Canada at her home in St. Catharines. Having already fought in the “Bleeding Kansas” wars – violently killing pro-slavery advocates and freeing bondspeople – Brown now seeks to expand his war further south and enlist the help of “General Tubman,” as he calls her. Tubman recruits freedom seekers from Maryland, now living in Canada, to join Brown as he builds an army to attack the South and set bondspeople free.
Tubman Buys Home in Auburn, New York
In May, Tubman buys a house and a small piece of land in Auburn, New York, from then-Senator William H. Seward (1801-1872), who will later become Secretary of State in the administration of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Tubman brings her parents to live there. Also this year: In October, John Brown leads a raid on an armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to ignite an armed insurrection among the enslaved and their allies. The raid is unsuccessful, resulting in Brown’s arrest and eventual execution later in December.
Tubman’s Last Rescue Mission
– On April 27, Tubman leads a public rescue of freedom seeker Charles Nalle (1821-1875), who is ushered out of jail and across the Hudson River by a mob of townsfolk in Troy, New York. – On November 6, Election Day, Abraham Lincoln becomes the 16th president of the United States, thus prompting Southern states to secede from the Union in anticipation of his opposition to slavery. – In December, Tubman conducts her final rescue mission from the Eastern Shore. Failing to rescue her sister Rachel, she liberates the Ennals family instead.
U.S. Civil War Begins
– The U.S. Civil War begins on April 12 when Confederate troops fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. – Harriet Jacobs (1815-1897) publishes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pen name Linda Brent, the first slave narrative to highlight from an enslaved woman’s perspective the sexual violence that framed the experiences of enslaved women and girls.
Tubman is Sent to War
In January, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, and an admirer of Tubman, sends her to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where her skills as an Underground Railroad conductor are put to great use for the duration of the Civil War, working as a spy and scout for the United States Army. She also serves as a nurse and sees action in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Tubman will be inducted into the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 2021 in recognition of her work as a spy during the Civil War.
Emancipation Proclamation and Combahee River Raid
– On January 1, President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation that frees bondspeople in Confederate states. – On June 2, Tubman becomes the first woman in U.S. history to plan and execute a military raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina, subsequently freeing over 750 people from slavery. – On July 18, Tubman serves the last meal of white commanding officer Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863), who led the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to fight bravely in a doomed raid on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
Tubman Meets Sojourner Truth
In August, Tubman meets Sojourner Truth in Boston, the latter who is on a lecture campaign promoting President Lincoln’s reelection. The two women hold different views on Lincoln. Tubman blames him for the unequal pay Black soldiers received in the Union Army in comparison to their white counterparts. However, after Truth meets with the president and publishes a laudatory open letter describing Lincoln as respectful and gracious, Tubman is persuaded that she may have been wrong about him.
Slavery and Civil War Come to an End
– On January 31, Congress passes the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. – Tubman arrives in Washington, D.C. to work with freed women and their children. In the spring, she is sent to Fortress Monroe as a matron of the hospital for Black soldiers. – On April 9, the Civil War comes to an end when Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrenders. On April 15, President Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). – In October, Tubman is violently ejected from a passenger train by a racist conductor on her way to Auburn.
Tubman Meets Nelson Davis
In either 1866 or 1867, Tubman meets Civil War veteran Nelson Davis (ca.1844-1888), who is twenty-two years her junior and a boarder in her home.
Tubman is Widowed from First Marriage
Tubman’s husband, John Tubman, is killed by a white neighbor during a dispute back in Maryland.
Tubman Dictates Her Biography
– Tubman dictates her first biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, to white abolitionist ally Sarah H. Bradford (1818-1912) in efforts to raise funds after she is denied her veteran’s pension. Also this year: – On July 9, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, which grants African Americans citizenship and “equal protection under the law.”
Tubman Marries Davis
– On March 18, Tubman marries Nelson Davis in Auburn. Also this year: – On February 26, Congress passes the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extends voting rights to Black men and is ratified a year later. – In May, the women’s suffrage movement splits over the 15th amendment because it excludes women’s right to vote.
William Still Preserves History
William Still publishes his records on freedom seekers in a book titled The Underground Railroad. These records include the extensive years and stories that Still wrote down when interviewing freedom seekers, including the histories of famed conductors like Tubman and other anti-slavery agents. Tubman’s father Ben Ross, an active participant on the Underground Railroad, died the year before in November 1871.
– On March 22, the Spanish National Assembly abolishes slavery in Puerto Rico. – In October, an account is given of Tubman succumbing to a gold swindle, in which she is injured as the con men abscond with her money. Tubman’s pressing financial needs, and her willingness to open her home to formerly enslaved African Americans and anyone else in need, make her especially vulnerable to such scams.
Tubman Adopts Baby Girl
Tubman adopts a baby girl and names her Gertie (1874-ca.1900). She and her husband Davis support their household of extended family by selling farm products and starting a brick company. She also grows an impressive apple orchard on her property.
Tubman’s House is Destroyed by Fire
A fire destroys Tubman’s wood-framed house. This misfortune is added to the loss of her mother, who died either this year or the year before. With the help of their community, Tubman and Davis build a brick house to replace their home, which still stands today.
Tubman’s Second Biography is Published
– Bradford publishes a second biography, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, to help raise funds for the construction of Tubman’s new house and other financial needs. – On October 7, Cuba abolishes slavery.
Tubman is Widowed a Second Time
On October 14, Tubman becomes a widow after Davis, who was often sickly, dies of tuberculosis. Earlier in the year, on March 13, Brazil becomes the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.
Tubman is Eligible for Pension
The Dependent and Disability Pension Act is signed into law, which makes Tubman eligible for a pension as the widow of a veteran.
Tubman Receives Widow’s Pension
Tubman is granted a monthly widow’s pension of $8 and a lump sum of $500 to cover the five-year delay in approval.
Tubman Supports Civil and Women’s Rights
– Tubman purchases twenty-five acres of land adjacent to her house to establish an infirmary and home for aged and indigent Black people. Another edition of her second biography by Bradford helps to fund this purchase. – On May 18, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision legalizes racial segregation. – In July, Tubman speaks and sings at the founding convention of the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C. – In November, Tubman speaks at a women’s suffrage convention in Rochester, New York, led onstage by Susan B. Anthony.
Tubman Receives Gift from Queen Victoria
– After reading Tubman’s biography, Queen Victoria, in the year of her Diamond Jubilee, gifts Tubman a silver medal and a silk lace and linen shawl to honor her for her abolitionist work in Canada. – Tubman spends several months in Boston visiting friends and relatives, giving lectures and interviews, and attending women’s rights meetings. In August, Tubman is interviewed by historian Wilbur Siebert (1866-1961), who publishes her story in the book The Underground Railroad in Slavery and Freedom.
Tubman Undergoes Surgery
– Tubman undergoes surgery in Boston for her epileptic seizures when the pain of recurring headaches becomes unbearable. Also this year: – The United States expands territory in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
Tubman Receives Her Veteran’s Pension
– After years of struggle, Tubman finally receives her veteran’s pension, the amount adjusted to $20 a month in recognition for her work as a Civil War nurse, but not as a spy and scout. – Around the turn of the century or before, Tubman’s adopted daughter Gertie, who had already lost an infant son in 1893, dies from an illness.
The Birth of a Song and “New Negroes”
– In February, “New Negro” writer James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) pens the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that his brother J. Rosamund Johnson (1873-1954) sets to music on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It will later be known as the “Black National Anthem.” – From July 23-25, the first Pan-African Conference is held in London, drawing 37 delegates from around the world, including Africa, the Caribbean, the U.S., and Europe. Intellectual leader W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), Harvard’s first African American Ph.D., plays a leading role.
Tubman’s Life Story is Kept in Circulation
An expanded and final edition of Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People is published. Tubman is celebrated in different press stories.
The Heart and Soul of Black Folks
– Tubman transfers ownership of her twenty-five-acre property to the AME Zion Church. – W.E.B. DuBois publishes The Souls of Black Folk.
Legacies Are Kept Alive
– In May, Tubman is featured in an article in the Boston Herald about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th for Memorial Day. – In July, a group of African Americans, led by DuBois, dine at the home of Black club woman and suffragist Mary B. Talbert (1866-1923) in Buffalo, New York, later meeting across the Niagara Falls border in Ontario, Canada, to address Black civil and political rights beyond the “accommodation” views of Black leader Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). They form the Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the NAACP.
Harriet Tubman Home Opens
The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged officially opens and includes the John Brown Hall Infirmary.
NAACP is Founded
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded as an interracial organization supporting the rights of African Americans. Founding members include W.E.B. DuBois, Mary White Ovington, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett among others.
Tubman is Hospitalized
Tubman, wheelchair bound, is admitted into the John Brown Hall Infirmary. Funds are raised for her care and admission fee. The New York Age, an African American newspaper, includes the headline, “Harriet Tubman is Ill and Penniless,” to help raise funds.
Harriet Tubman Dies
The events leading up to Tubman’s passing: – January 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. – On March 3, the women’s suffrage movement stages a national protest march in Washington, D.C. Tubman, too ill to attend, delivers a message of unity through Mary B. Talbert, a call not heeded by racist white suffragists. – On March 10, surrounded by loved ones, Tubman dies of pneumonia at the age of 91. She speaks Christ’s words before dying: “I go to prepare a place for you.” She is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson.
Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora.
dark energy for Harriet Tubman
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, 2022
the Astronomical Society
of London meets
to write down what they know of stars
in eastern shore Maryland
into an unmeasurable life
sap dark root of love
opening out your skull
praise the girl who watched the comet and knew
praise the girl who tracked the north star and knew
praise the girl who studied herself and knew one thing:
sky is a map
expand the universe
open the wet reflective road
blood bashed temporal lobe
let everything that is not love
escape your skull
like so much stardust
and while they chart
the pricks of light
if colonialism is a starving hunter
and slavery is a splintered pencil
if all you breathe is freedom
they can’t hear you
if all you take is freedom
they can’t steal you
if all you feel is freedom
they can’t find you
if all you give is freedom
they can’t stop you
if all you love is freedom
they can’t catch you
girl you look just like freedom
they can’t see you
sing to the river
wake the people
sing to the rice fields
wake the land
sing to the trees
sing to the river
the people come running
buildings burning in their wake
walk away from the broken promise
walk away like you walked before
walk away from the muddled battle
walk on into your own front door
freedom is the people you choose
the air you breathe
the meeting room
is a night sky
you see infinite versions
of the universe
looking back at you
in each blinking face
the comet comes back
if you build it right
if you know the trees
if you make it sweet enough for your parents
and big enough for your community
and soon enough to live in it yourself
the old folks home can be a spaceship
they can fix the cosmos
get black history down in writing
fix your image keep you there
somewhere the first and last astronomer laughs
Notes on Dates
- In 1822 Araminta Ross was born in Eastern Shore Maryland. The London Astronomical Society (which some years later would receive a royal charter and become the Royal Astronomical Society) began its publication.
- In 1835 Araminta is 13 years old, and she learns much about trees from her father. When she accidentally gets in the way (in some reports of this story, Araminta directly intervenes in the abuse of another enslaved young person), an overseer opens her skull with a blunt object. She will live and lead with temporal lobe epilepsy for her entire life. In 1835 she may have seen Halley’s comet for the first time. Two years ago, she had already witnessed the Leonid meteor showers. Her destiny is already aligned with the stars.
- In 1844 Araminta gains the lasting name Tubman. Her marriage to John Tubman is not as lasting.
- In 1849 Araminta learns of an attempt to sell her, she escapes alone.
- Over the next decade Harriet Tubman leads around 70 enslaved people to freedom, the reward for her capture when she first escaped priced at $100. Later, an anti-slavery activist who petitioned for Tubman to get paid for her services during the Civil War, claimed that a bounty on her head was once worth $40,000 (the equivalent of millions of dollars in our own day). While this amount is not based in fact, we are reminded of the monetary value placed on enslaved people and their attempts at escape. The rigors of the Fugitive Slave Act and the price on her head conscript all the energy capitalism into seeking her capture. All the energy of capitalism fails.
- In June 1863 Harriet Tubman plans and executes the Combahee River Uprising. With the help of 8 scouts and a Union Army former participant in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, about 800 people enslaved on rice plantations run into the river to their freedom. Tubman sings to guide them to the boats. 35 plantation buildings burn to the ground.
- After the Civil War the US Army stalls decades on Tubman’s pension for her time as a crucial scout and the architect of Combahee Uprising, a pivotal battle in the war. Many years later they only give her a widow’s pension because her second husband was also a veteran. And when she finally received a pension in her own right, it was for her work as a nurse, not as a spy or scout. After the war she goes to the home she built for her family members in Auburn, NY.
- In 1896 Harriet Tubman attends the founding meeting of the National Association of Colored Women, along with Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and others. The organization still exists today.
- In 1910 Halley’s Comet comes back around.
- In 1913 Harriet Tubman passes away surrounded by loved ones, cared for in the home for the aged and chronically ill that she created in Auburn NY for her family and community, a disabled visionary held by the vision of care she created through love. Out of this world.
- In 1922 Carter G. Woodson includes a woodcut of Harriet Tubman leaning on a rifle in The Negro in Our History, considered by many to be a founding text of the field of Black History.
- I wrote this poem in 2022 to honor Harriet Tubman’s cosmic bicentennial.
In the dead of night
North Star, rivers, mossy trees
Hushed sounds, secrets, run
Dreams of God,
Woman of Freedom,
Guide for All
One step at a time
You liberated thousands
You are our hero
Moses of her people
Queen of underground railway
born enslaved, freed all
Followed your path home
Rescuer, freedom fighter
Moses was her name
She guided most brave souls to
still guides us in darkest night
toward freedom’s light
prayed for your heart
before I prayed you dead
God heard the second
A star leading to
freedom, shining through the dark,
brilliance from within
your torch stays lit through tunnels,
groves of railroad-trees
She planted gardens—
Woman leader helper friend
freedom dream giving
of a timeless Black woman
life and legacy
T'Sey-Haye M. Preaster
the original blueprint
for winning at life
A freedom fighter
travels across time and space
to set us all free
Her legacy burns
like an everlasting flame
we shall not forget
and stranger in a strange land
she made a new home
A beacon of hope
rising from dreadful darkness
shines into freedom
“My people are free!”
shouts the daughter in bondage
All are freed from chains
and thrived so we can survive
hope for the future
She took back the night
blending with the land and sky
focused on freedom
The haiku is a poem that originated within Japanese culture and is arranged in three lines (five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second, and five syllables in the third). Originally written to celebrate nature and the seasons, haiku poems have since expanded to other subjects.
Harriet Tubman, a lover of nature who ushered so many to freedom, relied on her skilled knowledge of forests and waterways to rescue freedom seekers on their way to the north. For Tubman’s bicentennial, we invite you to submit an original haiku in honor of her legacy.
Submissions will be moderated for appropriate language and proper formatting.
What Do We Owe Harriet Tubman?
Harriet Tubman struggled with money throughout her life. She fought tirelessly for financial compensation for her services during the U.S. Civil War as a nurse, scout, spy, and military-raid leader (the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military raid). Despite the refusal of the U.S. government to grant Tubman a veteran’s pension, Tubman and her allies never stopped pursuing this goal. In 1899, she was finally given this pension, which was adjusted to $20 a month.
Based on the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2016, Office for National Statistics, we created a similar calculator and invite you to formulate just a snapshot of what Tubman is owed, based on just some of the unpaid enslaved labor she performed before she escaped from slavery in 1849 at the age of 27.
Harriet Tubman’s Labor During Slavery
Working “Sunup ’til sundown” (est. 12 hours/day)
These are general estimates of the wages paid during the nineteenth century for each type of work. Source: Bureau of Labor.
Simple Interest Calculator. Source: Calculator Soup
All icons from Noun Project—broom by Supalerk Laipawat; frying pan by Grégory Montigny; anchor by Srinivas Agra; hoe by Chaowalit Koetchuea; laundry by Iconpixel; chopping wood by Bernar Novalyi.