By Owei Lakemfa
OUR sister, Araminta Ross who became famous as Harriet Tubman, was born a slave in Maryland, United States (US) in 1820. She lived the American nightmare but decided at 29 to change her life of programmed servitude to that of a free person to whom hundreds of slaves directly, owed their freedom.
One hundred and three years after her 1913 eternal departure, her country of birth has decided to honour this unique humanist and great liberator of slaves who took up arms to realise her dream of an America free of slavery and inequality.
When the new $20 bill is produced with her face on it, she will be the first woman and first African American to be so honoured. She will be replacing on the bill, President Andrew Jackson who will now feature on the reverse side of the currency. The new currency bill is likely to go into circulation in 2020, the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment which gave American women the right to vote.
In 1849 when she decided to make a bid for freedom, her husband, John Tubman refused to go with her while her two brothers who agreed, developed cold feet and turned back. She escaped to Philadelphia, and rather than ‘enjoy’ her freedom, worked, saved money and returned the following year to rescue her niece’s children. She made another journey in 1851 to guide her brother and two men to freedom.
She returned a third time, to persuade her husband to move North with her, only to discover that he had married a fellow freed slave, so she took along, other slaves. In 1853, she came for her three brothers, and four years later, for her parents who she resettled in New York. She freed many slaves through the network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses which became known as the Underground Railroad. She was the most famous ‘conductor’ on the Railroad, and did not lose a single ‘passenger’.
A price tag was placed on her head, but that did not deter her as she dreamt of a future egalitarian, non-racist America. The type of America Martin Luther King Jnr envisaged half a century later when he said: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation Where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin But by the content of their character”. It is a dream that has produced Barrack Obama, the first African American President of the United States. It is a fitting tribute that the decision to honour Tubman by putting her face on the $20 bill, was taken under his presidency.
In later years, Tubman, who for her far sightedness and work of liberating slaves became known as the woman called ‘Moses’ was to say “ Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
When in 1858-59, the unforgettable freedom fighter and humanist, John Brown decided to lead an armed insurrection to free slaves and secure a state for ex-slaves, Tubman assisted him to raise funds and recruit former slaves into the liberation army. The insurrection failed, Brown lost two sons, and was hanged along with six other freedom fighters. But he became one of the most famous men in history.
Tubman looked back at her efforts to free slaves and said: “I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Then came the American Civil War and Tubman joined the Union Army where she served as a scout, spy, nurse and soldier. Her most famous battle was when she led the attack on Combahee Ferry. General Hunter wanted to destroy bridges, railroads and rebel supplies along the Combahee River which had a large slave population and asked Tubman to do the job. She agreed but requested that Colonel James Montgomery, one of John Brown’s fighters, be appointed to command the expedition.
This battle was carried out by the African American Second South Carolina Regiment. On June 1, 1863, three gunboats set out on the river and after successfully carrying out their mission, they freed and took on board over seven hundred slaves. Tubman described the scene of the slaves evacuation: “I nebber see such a sight…Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin’ roun’ der necks; ‘pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin’ behin’, all loaded; pigs squealin’, chickens screamin’, young ones squallin’.”
When the gunboats with the liberated slaves set off, Tubman broke into a song “Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West, The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best. Come along! Come along! don’t be alarmed, Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.”
She might have been too optimistic that capitalist America will cater for all, but for her it was an optimistic embrace of the future. After the war, she struggled financially as her request for compensation by the American Government for the years spent fighting in the war, was rejected. Author,
Sarah. H. Bradford wrote an authorised biography “ Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” which was published in 1889. This eased her financial difficulties. Finally in 1899, the Congress approved a $12 monthly stipend for her services as a nurse during the war.
She was quite active in the Women Movement as part of her pursuit for an egalitarian and equitable society and the continued sustenance of family life. She was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and richly, deserves her face on the American currency bill. One day, we shall also have the face of Malcolm X on an American currency bill; it is then, we shall be convinced that all men and women are born equal in America.