Slavery is an institution as old as humankind itself. Survey any historical period, and you’ll find justification by entire societies for forcing those they’ve conquered or deem inferior to labor for them.
Since the desire to be free surges through everyone’s veins, America’s founding principles have inspired and attracted people from all over the world. As a country made up of people willing to fight for freedom, America became a place where anyone willing to work hard was free to prosper. Well, almost anyone…
In mid-19th-century America, business interests and the consciences of an increasing number of citizens collided. How could a civil government founded on the very principle that each individual was naturally endowed with “certain unalienable rights” arbitrarily enslave millions of people? It was a time of action. And from this time emerged bold actions of both traitors to--and heroes of--liberty.
One of this period’s greatest heroes was Harriet Tubman. For starters, she was a slave and therefore viewed as a commodity from which all its value should be extracted. As a black, she would have been regarded as less than human by many of her white contemporaries. As a woman, though expected to work physically demanding jobs, she’d have been considered less capable than a man. And, barely five-feet tall, she’d have been perceived as limited in her usefulness.
Yet Tubman defied all these misconceptions at an early age. As an angry overseer picked up and threw an iron weight at a slave running away from him, an adolescent Tubman purportedly leapt up to protect the slave and was hit on the side of her head. This injury almost killed her and would cause her pain, headaches and blackouts for the rest of her life.
It’s striking that, as she risked her own well-being and sustained a lifelong injury, she was returned to her master and dismissed as being, “not worth a sixpence.” It was in this act of selflessness that we see the truth of who Harriet Tubman was and a foreshadowing of what would become.
For Tubman, clarity came soon after when she realized that she, “had a right to liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” Tubman’s exemplary life illustrates how you can’t long deny your calling and maintain any reasonable peace of mind.
And so she chose freedom. Though the vast majority of slaves who attempted to escape--and certainly the majority who succeeded in their efforts--were men, Tubman was different. She succeeded. This would be just the beginning of an inspiring string of achievements that would set her apart as a legendary figure.
Like everyone else in her position, Tubman had to work out the difficulties facing newly free people, like finding work and figuring out who she could trust. She’d be constantly forced to deal with fears of recapture and guilt over her own freedom while friends and family remained enslaved.
Confusion and uncertainty disappeared, however, when Tubman discovered that her niece, Kizzy, was to be sold and perhaps lost within the Deep South as Tubman’s sister had been. Tubman was determined to save her, and so began her astonishing career as an “abductor” on the Underground Railroad. (Kizzy and her two children were safely brought to freedom.)
Tubman spent 12 years rescuing many hundreds of slaves under the most harrowing and dangerous circumstances. Wanted by the law and slave catchers alike, Tubman relied on her wits, courage and endurance (and occasionally her revolver) to become a formidable antislavery force. Her life became a consistent expression of her words: “If you're tired, keep going; if you're scared, keep going; if you're hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”
During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse to soldiers and former slaves. She was also a scout and a spy who not only informed the army of troop locations but helped coordinate routes and plans for various maneuvers that led to Confederate defeats.
Consider the energy (both emotional and physical) she sustained for what she knew was important. After the war, she again nursed the sick and wounded and would eventually establish a house of her own where she was never without “guests” who were sick, blind or otherwise helpless. With just enough money to scrape by herself, she nonetheless welcomed those in need and spent the balance of her life taking care of those no one else would.
Even after receiving a very meager “retirement” from the U.S. government for her services as a nurse during the war, Tubman refused to slow down. Between her tiny income and her constant willingness to ask for money for people and necessary projects, she lived to realize her dream of creating a home for “aged and indigent colored people” that now bears her name: The Harriet Tubman Home.
From the first blow she took protecting a fellow slave to her efforts as an abolitionist, from her perilous flights into hostile slave states to her later work as a suffragette, Tubman’s legacy is a remarkable testimony to a life lived by a few basic principles.
As she concluded her life of service, Tubman comforted those around her by telling them, “I go to prepare a place for you.” If only she knew how accurate that prophesy was--in this life! She continues to serve as an example of how to engage and overcome personal hardships and succeed in the face of adversity. She charted a course founded in enthusiasm, courage, endurance and integrity that, if we’ll follow it, can lead us to our own promised lands. Live the wisdom her life and words offer: “Keep going.”