Harriet Tubman was one of the great conductors on the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War.
The conductor was a person who led slaves safely from the deep South to freedom in the North. The Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad, but was any route with safe stops, whether it be a house, barn or field, where slaves could hide on their trip to the North. Tubman was proud of the fact that she never lost a “passenger” and led all who were under her care safely to freedom in the North.
Tubman was born into slavery in the 1820s. She suffered great brutality at the hands of one of her slave masters, which resulted in a debilitating head injury that caused throbbing headaches throughout her life. She was also less valuable as a slave with the disfiguring injury. Her chances to be more comfortable as a house slave were thus diminished.
As she grew older, she was assigned to the hard labors of the field and outdoor work. Sometimes slave masters would loan out their slaves to work for another master for a short time for a fee. Eventually slave families would be split up, either when they were lent out to another plantation or sold to someone else. Occasionally a master would die, and his estate would set the slaves free — what was known as manumission.
One day Tubman heard that she would be sent further south into the heartland of Dixie. But before she was sent, she decided to escape north with two of her brothers.
It is interesting that, as they traveled, the brothers began to have second thoughts about escaping. The Fugitive Slave Laws had been passed, and if a run-away-slave was caught, he or she would be returned to his angry master and the punishment would likely be severe.
So the three of them returned to the plantation where they had been working. The thoughts of freedom could never leave Tubman’s thoughts, however. So she set out for her freedom again. She traveled at night, and her route of almost 90 miles took her one to two weeks.
In the book, “Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People,” Tubman describes the moment when she first arrived in Pennsylvania from Maryland. She “looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields. I felt like I was in heaven.”
Tubman couldn’t help herself. She had to go back to rescue other members of her family and friends. Soon she was leading them on the safe routes of the Underground Railroad.
Tubman was clever in her escapes. Once, while riding a train, she pretended to read a newspaper, so she was not noticed. In another instance, she traveled with two live chickens, as if running on errands for her master.
Once, while staying at the house of an abolitionist along the route, she quickly picked up a broom and began sweeping the porch as if she was a slave for this house. In this way she was able to dispel any suspicions. Finally, in another instance, while traveling north, she suddenly turned around and took the train heading south, something a runaway slave would not do.
In all, Tubman made about 13 trips to help 70 people escape to their freedom in the North. Tubman eagerly shared the information she had to travel freely to the North, and over the years, many followed her example.
Newport Beach resident SHERRY MARRON has a doctorate in American studies. She has taught at the University of Connecticut and Orange Coast College.