I have a story to tell. It starts with a little girl.
Her name was Araminta Ross, “Minty” for short. Minty had an unlucky start to her life. For many of us, from the moment we are born, we become our parent’s prized possessions. Not so for our little girl Minty. That’s not so say that her parents didn’t love her dearly it’s just that Minty was owned by a woman called Mary Pattison Brodess and later, her son Edward.
You see, Minty’s mum and dad were slaves. Their children never truly belonged to them as they too became slaves as soon as they were born. Life for the Ross family was tough and they never had a day’s control over what happened to them. Minty should have had three older sisters to play and grow up with but Edward Brodess had decided instead to sell them. Can you imagine that happening to you? Three sisters ripped from your family and sold for cash and not a single thing you could do about it?
Minty had other siblings too. The youngest was called Moses. Rumours were rife and Minty’s mum, Rit discovered that Brodess was going to sell her youngest son. She hid him away for a month but one day Edward arrived with a man from Georgia who wished to buy Moses. They demanded she hand over the child. Rit could not bear to and threatened to split the head open of any man who entered her house. The threat worked and she was able to keep Moses. Little Minty had seen with her own eyes, a black enslaved woman stand up and resist.
As Minty’s parents had to work such long hours, she was left from a very early age to look after her younger siblings. When she was the tender age of five or six, it was time for Minty to begin her own work as a slave and she was hired out to look after a baby as it slept. As they often do, the baby would wake and cry. Every time this happened, the young Minty was lashed with a whip. She carried the scars with her for the rest of her life.
As Minty grew older, she undertook numerous tasks such as ploughing and hauling logs. Slaves needed to be incredibly strong and weakness was not tolerated. One day in a shop, she was asked to help restrain another slave. Remembering the lesson of resistance she had learnt from her mum, she refused but she got caught up in the crossfire when a two pound weight thrown at the escaping slave, struck her on the head. Minty was left for two days without medical treatment before being put back into the fields to continue work with blood still seeping from her head. Again, she carried the scars for the remainder of her life, suffering from fits.
Minty had a truly horrendous childhood that probably makes us feel guilty for ever complaining about our upbringing. Take a minute now to pause and imagine zooming ahead to Minty as an adult. What sort of a woman would she be? How would she feel about other people? Would she be angry or bitter? Will she have even survived beyond childhood, having already been disabled with a head injury and toiling away for so many years?
Minty did make adulthood and in around 1844 she married a man named John Tubman. He was a free black man but Minty was still a slave. At around this time, she changed her first name to Harriet. If you are American it is likely that you will know our Harriet Tubman but otherwise she is probably still a stranger to most of you.
Harriet became angered by her status as a slave and her owner’s unsuccessful attempts to sell her to someone else. After Edward Brodess died in 1849, Harriet decided she wouldn’t let his widow decide her fate and made preparations. She escaped with two of her brothers but after a 100 dollar award was offered for the return of each of them, the brothers decided to return and Harriet went back with them. Harriet did not leave it long before escaping again, this time alone. A network known as the Underground Railroad helped her to travel 90 miles north on foot to the state of Pennsylvania where slavery had been outlawed. To avoid capture she needed to travel under the darkness of night with only the stars to guide her. Remember, Harriet was still only in her twenties.
A year later, U.S. Congress passed a law known as the Fugitive Slave Law. This meant that even in states where slavery was no longer allowed, law enforcement officials had no choice but to capture and punish escaped slaves. As you can imagine, Harriet was again in a dangerous position. Many escaped slaves started travelling further north to Canada to reach safety. Who could have blamed our Harriet if she had chosen to do the same?
Harriet however, was busy thinking and worrying about her family that she had left behind. I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of bravery such a decision would take, but Harriet chose to return to the area from which she had escaped to help her family escape. And this is where Harriet’s extraordinary story really begins.
Harriet, with only her revolver to protect her, began working with the Underground Railroad and spent 11 years returning to the area in which she had been enslaved, helping many others escape. The figures are somewhat disputed, but many sources quote that she made 19 trips rescuing over 300 slaves. All before she had reached the age of 40! Not only had she shown incredible bravery in escaping but she repeatedly placed herself in serious danger in order to help others.
In 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Surely now was the time for Harriet to flee to safety and enjoy some peace in her life? Of course not! She could see that a win for the Unions, would probably mean an end slavery in America. Harriet at first worked as a nurse, helping wounded soldiers. A couple of years later, Harriet was able to use all the knowledge she had gathered from her secretive travels. As part of a group, she was able to map an unknown area and gather information that led to Jacksonville, Florida being captured.
But she did not stop there. Harriet became the first woman to lead an assault in the Civil War. She guided three ships around mines and once on shore, they caused enough chaos that more than 700 slaves could rush to the whistle of their steamboats and be rescued. A truly inspirational, brave woman.
If we could wish anything for Harriet after the war, I think we would agree that it would be a comfortable and quiet life with respect and honour for her actions and service to the country. Sadly, like much of our Minty’s story, this was not to be. After the war, she was travelling on a train when a conductor told her to move to the smoking carriage. Why? Well, black people may not have been enslaved but they were far from the point of equal rights. Harriet being the gutsy woman she was, and having been set an example by her mother, refused. She explained what she had done for the country ; how she had fought in the war. It made no difference. The conductor along with two passengers, physically dragged her from where she was, despite her desperately clinging on. Her arm was broken and as they threw her like a piece of garbage into the smoking carriage, she suffered even more injuries. Not a single ounce of respect was shown for a country’s hero simply because of the colour of her skin.
Even in her later years, Harriet never gave up fighting for what she believed in and worked with the Suffrage movement to speak out for women’s right to vote. She dedicated her life to helping others and I am in total awe of her and everything she achieved.
As a black person without equal rights, Harriet did much of her work without, or for little, pay. She remained poor her entire life. In 1911 when she became unable to live independently, she was taken, penniless, into a rest home that was named in her honour. Americans were beginning to recognise Harriet’s huge contributions and donations were sent. She died in 1913 with the words, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Even in dying, her thoughts were about helping others.
Harriet Tubman, or “Minty”, is now widely known and celebrated in America and has inspired many African Americans seeking equal rights. I hope you agree with me though, that “Minty” fully deserves to be known and throughout the world. Please spread the word and tell your family and friends the story of little “Minty”. She deserves the respect of all of us.