WASHINGTON – Maryland members of Congress introduced legislation this week to honor Harriet Tubman, a Maryland-born abolitionist and humanitarian who led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“We wanted to call attention to a great Marylander, a person who has roots in the state, who is in many respects a modern-day Moses,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., of the Senate bill, which would create a national day of remembrance honoring Tubman. The same bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore.
The resolution was introduced as Black History Month (February) ends and Women’s History Month (March) begins. Several states, including Maryland, already recognize Monday, the day of her death 95 years ago, as a day of remembrance for her.
Harriet Tubman is best known for helping hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Tubman led an estimated 70 slaves to freedom from the Eastern Shore on 13 expeditions, guiding them at night with the aid of the stars.
She added to her legacy as an agent of freedom by fighting alongside suffragette Susan B. Anthony and helping to establish a home for old, poor blacks.
Tubman was least appreciated of the trifecta of Marylanders — including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall –who fought for justice, said David Terry, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
“Of all three, she did so with the least support, the least public accolades,” said Terry.
Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County where she worked the fields and cared for children.
As an adolescent she was accidentally struck in the head with a two-pound weight that had been thrown at a slave who left the fields without permission.
She experienced seizures and sleeping spells over her life. Throughout her life, her religious convictions deepened.
She ran away from slavery around 1849, later returning to help hundreds escape using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses called the Underground Railroad.
“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say . . . I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” Tubman told an audience years later.
Tubman also became the first woman to lead an armed assault, guiding several steamboats around Confederate mines.
She donated a New York property she owned to an Episcopal Church for conversion into a home for poor, black people.
In later life, she underwent an operation to address worsening problems resulting from her earlier brain trauma at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. In place of anesthesia, she bit a bullet like she had many soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 around the age of 73.
Yet despite the complexity and inspiration of her story, Tubman’s tale was neglected for years, said Terry.
“She had the misfortune of not being taken very seriously by professional historians.”
Before the last 12 years, very little literature — other than books for children — were written on Tubman.
Even now, the public would benefit from a broader perspective, he said.
“She’s not simply the black Moses of the Underground Railroad. She led a full life. She was a complicated individual,” said Terry. “She’s very much an American story in the way we like to tell stories of Americans.”
Cardin said hopes the legislation will encourage communities to create meaningful celebrations to promote her legacy, as they have done with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I dare say most people in the country don’t know her,” said Cardin.
“There is broad support on the Harriet Tubman Resolution and pride in Maryland that we are showcasing this nationally.”
Maryland’s senior Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in a written statement that Tubman was “tireless in her commitment to fight for those who could not fight for themselves.”