Socialist Worker

Harriet Tubman - freedom fighter

Ahead of a new film telling the story of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who helped others on their way to freedom, Socialist Worker celebrates the life of a legend

Issue No. 2681

Cynthia Erivo as Tubman in the new film, Harriet

Cynthia Erivo as Tubman in the new film, Harriet

Abolitionist, suffragist and soldier Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County in the state of Maryland some time around 1825.

Headstrong and confident from a young age, she earned the wrath of her owners who banished her from domestic service to hard labour in the fields.

The brutality of those whose wealth flowed directly from the sweat of others in the corn, cotton and tobacco fields knew no bounds.

In her teens, an overseer threw a two pound weight that hit her on the head, fracturing her skull.

Tubman, who subsequently suffered a lifetime of seizures, lay without medical care for two days before being returned to graft on the plantation.

From that time on her friends remember her talking as though she were speaking directly with god. They also recall her falling asleep in the middle of conversations, only to reawaken, as if nothing had happened.

Her life might have followed this path for decades to come.

But when Tubman’s masters sold her sisters to slave owners in the Deep South, she resolved that this would not also be her fate.

In September 1849 she ­convinced her brothers to join her in a bid for freedom. They escaped together but the boys grew fearful and decided to turn back. Tubman went on alone.

For protection she changed her name from Araminta Ross, taking the Harriet from her mother and the Tubman from the husband she had recently married, but who had discouraged her escape plans.

“There was one of two things I had a right to”, she explained later. “Liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other.”

The path was hard and treacherous. Fugitive Slave Acts led to an abundance of bounty hunters looking for runaways—and large rewards. They scoured well-known trails that led eventually to either Canada or Mexico.

But help was also to be found on the way.

A network of abolitionists, secret routes and safe houses—known as the Underground Railroad—helped escapees make it to freedom. Tubman was first aided by a white woman Quaker and by others further on the road.

Guided by the stars, she headed north into Pennsylvania—a journey of 90 miles, many of which she trod in woodlands in pitch darkness. Tubman was free in Pennsylvania but could not enjoy liberty while her family remained captive.


Over the next eleven years she returned to Maryland as a ­“conductor” on the Underground Railroad 13 times, helping around 70 people escape—including her four brothers, her parents and a niece.

She generally made the trips in winter, when the long nights gave her cover and even the greediest bounty hunters preferred the warmth of their homes.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

As notoriety of this unknown hero grew, so the trips became ever more dangerous.

But Tubman became a master of disguise and began carrying a gun for protection.

The gun was not only aimed at those wanting to capture her, but also at any fretful runaway that wanted to turn back to their masters.

“Go on or die,” she told them. “A dead fugitive could tell no tales.” New laws made the job of getting former slaves to ­freedom more difficult.

Simply reaching the Northern states was no longer safe enough—getting her groups to Canada was now Tubman’s task.

The American Civil War began in April 1861, just months after Tubman’s final mission to Dorchester County.

Slavery was at the heart of the four-year conflict which saw the death of around 600,000 people out of a population of just 30 million.

Leaders of the Southern states, known as Confederates, fought to defend the slavery system they depended on. In the North, the ruling class backed the ideology of “free labour” because their system increasingly depended on industrialisation.

For a time it seemed that neither side could win. But when the leaders of the North made a turn towards fighting the war in a revolutionary fashion things changed.

The promised abolition of slavery in the South led hundreds of thousands of black people to join the Union Army.

Freed slave and radical campaigner Frederick Douglass wrote, “The American people and the government at Washington may refuse to recognise it for a time, but the inexorable logic of events will force it on them in the end—that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery.”

John Andrew, the ­abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, was one of the pioneers of the revolutionary war.

He knew of Tubman and asked her to head to the South and assist the “Contrabands”—the escaped slaves hoping to join the Union forces.

Tubman agreed and volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, from where she went on covert missions to free enslaved people, encourage escape and conduct surveillance.


She scouted the most ­dangerous areas prior to battles to bring back vital information and cultivate contacts.

The great weapon of the war turned out to be anti-racism.

That the North could go deep into enemy territory and subvert the enslaved people into open rebellion demoralised the South.

Now the slavers were forced to fight on the frontlines, where they increasingly faced militant black soldiers fighting in newly commissioned regiments.

They also had to be ever ­fearful at home on their plantations.

Tubman became the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition during the daring Combahee River Raid of 1863. She guided three steamboats of Union troops around Confederate mines in the waters bordering a number of important plantations.

Once ashore the troops burned everything in sight. Smoke from the burning fields mingled with those of the raided buildings. Food and supplies were thoroughly looted.

On the sound of the ­steamboats’ whistles, hundreds of slaves came running out of hiding to join the troops on board.

Some 750 slaves were freed, with women wading into the water carrying their young children around their necks. “I never saw such a sight,” Tubman recalled.

The spirit of the time was infectious, with one white Michigan sergeant writing, “The more I learn of the cursed institution of slavery, the more I feel willing to endure its final destruction.

“Abolishing slavery will ­dignify labour—that fact, of itself, will revolutionise everything.”

The Confederate forces finally surrendered in April 1865, but dreams of equality were to be cruelly dashed.

After the war came a period of “reconstruction” in which freed slaves were allowed to vote.

Hundreds of black people were elected to state ­government and some even to Congress and the Senate.

But when the old ­plantation managers started a ­counter-offensive, using the Ku Klux Klan as a weapon, the Northern ruling class refused to use their power to strip the Southerners of theirs. Instead racial segregation became the law of the new South.

During her three years of military service Tubman received just $200—about £2,300 in today’s money.

And, like so many black former soldiers, after the war she faced desperately hard times.

She appealed to the federal government for additional compensation, for which she won some substantial backing, but her campaign took 30 years before she saw any results.

Only in the 1890s did she start receiving a military ­pension, and even that was because of her late husband’s war time service.

Her own contributions were never recognised by the state in her lifetime and Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913.

But there were many people, black and white, who knew exactly what she had done and they were determined her memory should not fade.

When her friend, the children’s novelist Sarah Hopkins Bradford, wrote a biography of her, she called it “Tubman, the Moses of Her People.”

Harriet is in cinemas from Friday 22 November

Read more

  • Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton, £16.00
  • The American Crucible by Robin Blackburn, £14.99
  • Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams. Online at

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.