Harriet Tubman’s name is synonymous with the pursuit of freedom for enslaved Black people. She is seen as not only a woman who took several trips between the North and South to bring people out of bondage on the Underground Railroad (historians estimate more than 70) but as a scout, a Union spy, a nurse, and a pioneer.
Researchers believe she was born in early March 1820 on a plantation in Dorchester County, Md. And her life ultimately was about the liberation of the enslaved, abolition of slavery, and freedom for all.
Now, 200 years after her birth, her history and legacy are being told to a new generation by her descendants, who have striven to keep it alive. In addition, many people and organizations are celebrating the milestone by commemorating Tubman’s life and works. The City of Auburn, NY, where she is buried, presents events all this year to honor her. The Maryland Office of Tourism is inviting the public to explore the eastern shore byway, which leads through the state, and features historical sites important to Tubman’s story.
All of it is part of a broad celebration organized by several groups to continue the learning of Tubman as a leader and the history around her. Ernestine Wyatt, her great-great-great-grandniece spoke to BET.com about her legacy and what it means today.
BET.com: It is 200 years since Harriet Tubman's birth, and as schoolchildren, we learned about her and her heroism, but what are some of the things that we may not know about her that you think we should?
Ernestine Wyatt: Well, the one thing I have been doing for the last few years is making her civil war service known. It's not a secret that she was in the Civil War. But for, the majority of people that talked about Aunt Harriet focused on her liberation, but they never focused on her civil war service, nor anything that she did after the Civil War.
It took a lot of courage to do what she did. But more than that, it was selfless. She put other people in the center and did not think about herself at all because when she participated in that, she did it at her peril because she could have been taken back into slavery.
So when you think about the things that you want to teach children, you want to teach them about honor, you want to teach them about love, you want to teach them about respect. All those things can be done by using Harriet Tubman and her life, what she did, and how she did it.
BET.com: A lot of people don’t know that she was a spy, a soldier, or even a nurse. So what are some of the specifics about her service to the country?
Wyatt: Part of the issue was that whenever you read about her in the Civil War, it always started with, oh, she was a nurse, she was a cook, she was a laundress, then it was a spy and scout. But when I began reading more closely and talking to different scholars, you know, it was evident that spy and scout is why she was sent there.
Even in her petition for her pension, she puts spy and scout as why she deserved a pension from her service in the Civil War. I would say, throughout her life, but especially there, she showed that there were no limits to what a woman could do if she wanted to do it.
BET.com: Tell me more.
Wyatt: During the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, there have been female participation, but in the periphery. Women were not allowed to serve in a soldier's capacity in those wars. It was only as a nurse or to cook or something like that if they did. However, if they needed clandestine work, they needed somebody who could plan strategies, analyze, hide in plain sight, be good at getting around without being seen, and be able to read not only the environment to read people.
The thing is, also…which I cannot ever talk about her without saying this, she also gives credit to God for her success at what she did and because she was guided. So you know, there are many great lessons that one can learn from her for what she did then and what needs to happen now.
RELATED: Design Revealed For Harriet Tubman Monument That Will Replace Christopher Columbus In Newark
PHOTOS: Notable Black Women Who Have Shaped American History
BET.com: What was it like for you as a child learning that a woman so important to history was your relative, and how were you introduced to her?
Wyatt: Through my family, my grandmother, my mother. She was introduced not as Harriet Tubman, this famous person. She was introduced as "Aunt Harriet." And I used to often think, why are you calling her "Aunt Harriet," you don't know her, she's been dead (laughs), but I never would say that.
My grandmother, my family, most of my mother's family, on the maternal side, lived in Auburn, N.Y., and we lived in Buffalo. My mother came to Buffalo to be "Rosie the Riveter" during World War II. But we went back to visit my grandmother often. Even before I was born, they went back every weekend.
As we grew, and we would go, my grandmother would always say, let's go visit Aunt Harriet, as though she was still alive, and we were going to see her. But that's not what that meant. It meant let's go visit the home where she was, go visit where she lived, visit the gravesite, pay honor to her and for who she was in my grandmother's life and her mother's life.
BET.com: I'm glad you said that because I want to know what are the things about our life that are still relevant given the racial issues that we're dealing with today? Everything from discrimination to police violence, there's a lot going on.
Wyatt: When you look at all the things happening today, it's not so much unlike what was happening back then when she was alive. We can look at what happened pre-Civil War, Civil War, and reconstruction time. Are we back there again? Isn't it very close to where we are now?
Look at voting rights, a constant struggle, a constant fight. When you look at it, you have the 13th Amendment with that second clause that legalizes slavery under another name, which is through prisons.
We know oppression is still here, and oppression is coming out in a way that it has gone underground. But Aunt Harriet fought against those things, and she continued to do so. She was a suffragist. She didn't lead in that area, but she lent her voice to let them see what a woman can do, why a woman should be able to vote.
As men looked at women back then, women didn't have a voice, but she let women know you do have a voice, you can have these things, look what I did. So what she showed is that, you know, you don't always have to wait on someone else. You could do something yourself, and even on a small scale, you can do something.
BET.com: There's a controversy over teaching Black history in schools, and in some states, it's become a political issue. Do you feel that learning about Harriet Tubman's legacy will be affected by that?
Wyatt: It depends on where you place her in that history and if the actual story is told. But I think that we are relying too much on African American history being taught in our schools. Now don't get me wrong. I think we should keep fighting for that, but that's not our only avenue. Because when I was growing up, and before that, you were taught about your history in your home, first of all, then in your churches, and then in your community.
In my generation, especially because that was the Black Power movement time. So we created all these centers to teach us about Africa, our African roots, how that impacted us in America, and who we are as a people.
So, because of that, then we began learning even more about all the African Americans that went before us, that did things that made it possible [to know] whose shoulders we stood on, what they sacrificed. So I think that although we should still fight to get it in the schools, I feel like we should pivot a little bit and go back to the old way when learning our history.
BET.com: Finally, can you give me any updates in the efforts to get Harriet Tubman's picture on the $20 bill?
Wyatt: Every time I'm interviewed, I'm always asked that question. I know there's some controversy within our own culture about that. What I'm asking people to do, as a descendant, is to write your congressman, write your senate people. Let them know your desire—voice what you want.
What I would like to see is a commitment, a commitment that this cannot be changed, and it will not be kicked down the road… maybe in this administration, we can get that commitment. I know that we're not going to have that $20 bill during this administration's time, but to get that commitment, that it cannot be changed, I don't care who comes into office and that they have a deadline, they cannot delay it that would be great.
For a list of events commemorating Harriet Tubman's 200th birthday, click here.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Despite the pain and struggles Tubman faced, Harriet Tubman dedicated her life to compassion and equality, from freeing enslaved people to advocating for women's suffrage to caring for the elderly.Does Harriet Tubman have descendants? ›
It is believed Tubman did not have biological children of her own, and she adopted a baby girl named Gertie when she was already middle-aged in 1874. This adopted daughter died relatively young, but Tubman also helped to raise her siblings' children and grandchildren.What can we learn from Harriet Tubman's life? ›
She proclaimed herself free. Equipped with a steadfast determination that freedom was her natural lot and no human had a right to take that away from her, Tubman teaches us that we must first save ourselves, by any means necessary.How did Harriet Tubman inspire others? ›
Harriet Tubman was an escaped enslaved woman who became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, leading enslaved people to freedom before the Civil War, all while carrying a bounty on her head. But she was also a nurse, a Union spy and a women's suffrage supporter.Why should Harriet Tubman be remembered? ›
Harriet Tubman is well known for risking her life as a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad, which led escaped enslaved people to freedom in the North. But the former enslaved woman also served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.What was Harriet Tubman's greatest achievement and why? ›
What were Harriet Tubman's accomplishments? Harriet Tubman is credited with conducting upward of 300 enslaved people along the Underground Railroad from the American South to Canada. She showed extraordinary courage, ingenuity, persistence, and iron discipline.Is Harriet Tubman going to be on the $20 bill? ›
The decision to have Ms. Tubman replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 note was set in motion in 2016 by the Treasury secretary at the time, Jacob Lew.Did Harriet Tubman's parents make it to freedom? ›
Tubman's father was free due to manumission.
Ben Ross, Tubman's father, was freed in 1840. Her mother had a different form of manumission—term slavery—and she was supposed to be freed by the age of 45. That didn't happened, and Tubman's father bought his wife's freedom in 1855.
She courageously returned to Maryland at least 13 times over the course of a decade to rescue her parents, brothers, family members, and friends, guiding them safely to freedom. By 1860, Tubman had earned the nickname “Moses” for liberating so many enslaved people at great risk to her own life.How does Harriet Tubman affect us today? ›
Visionary leadership, Tubman taught us, is about defying expectations. Her life and her words hold out other messages for today's political leaders. As she put it, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” She meant that figuratively and literally.
One of the greatest and more common achievement of Harriet was helping slaves escape through the underground railroad.Why Harriet Tubman is a hero? ›
Tubman is best known as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, and her legacy is awe-inspiring. She liberated about 70 people on more than a dozen dangerous missions to slave-holding states in the decade prior to the Civil War, and she assisted many others with her knowledge of safe spaces and escape routes.How was Harriet Tubman selfless? ›
Harriet Tubman was a hero because she was selfless and brave. She was selfless because she put others ahead of herself and volunteered to help hundreds of slaves escape from slavery. She was also brave because she did everything she could to help her family and slaves.What character traits did Harriet Tubman have? ›
The adjectives the class used to describe Harriet Tubman were fierce, determined, brave, courageous, and caring. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 and had a very difficult life as a slave. However, she successfully escaped in 1849.What does Harriet Tubman represent? ›
Best known as the enslaved woman who brought emancipation to anyone who crossed her path, the legacy of Harriet Tubman's lifework has inspired countless people across generations and geographic locations. Tubman was born into chattel slavery as Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822.What methods did Harriet Tubman use to improve American life? ›
Tubman did many things to help promote reform, she scouted and spied for the Union Army, raised funds for schools that served former slaves, and found housing for the elderly. Harriet Tubman ran away from slavery and began to use underground tunnels that ran from the North to the South helping other slaves become free.What was Harriet Tubman's final words? ›
She died surrounded by loved ones on March 10, 1913, at approximately 91 years of age. Her last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Get a head start on the morning's top stories. Tubman's accomplishments are, of course, hard to summarize.What was Harriet Tubman's greatest strength as a leader? ›
DId you knwo a single woman was able to liberate more than 700 slaves? This person is Harriet Tubman and she was able to do this as a leader with her organization. Tubman 's best leadership quality was her organizational skills.Is there a $500 bill? ›
$500 Bill. Like all the bills featured here, the $500 bill remains legal tender. Most $500 notes in circulation today are in the hands of dealers and collectors.Is there a US $1000 bill? ›
But it is very real — and a beauty, too! This incredibly high-denomination $1,000 bill: Last printed at the end of World War II, the bill you'll receive is one of the final $1,000 Federal Reserve Notes issued by the U.S. government.
$1,000: Grover Cleveland, 22nd president, 24th prez. $5,000: James Madison, fourth president, helped write Federalist Papers. $10,000: Salmon P. Chase, not a president, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury.How many slaves escaped? ›
Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased penalties against runaway slaves and those who aided them. Because of this, some freedom seekers left the United States altogether, traveling to Canada or Mexico. Approximately 100,000 American slaves escaped to freedom.When did slavery end? ›
Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or ...How many slaves did Harriet Tubman free in total? ›
Myth: Harriet Tubman rescued 300 people in 19 trips. Fact: According to Tubman's own words, and extensive documentation on her rescue missions, we know that she rescued about 70 people—family and friends—during approximately 13 trips to Maryland.How has Harriet Tubman changed society? ›
In addition to leading more than 300 enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman helped ensure the final defeat of slavery in the United States by aiding the Union during the American Civil War. She served as a scout and a nurse, though she received little pay or recognition.What did Harriet Tubman fear? ›
The Underground Railroad and Siblings
Following a bout of illness and the death of her owner, Tubman decided to escape slavery in Maryland for Philadelphia. She feared that her family would be further severed and was concerned for her own fate as a sickly slave of low economic value.
Upon returning to Dorchester County, Tubman discovered that Rachel had died, and the children could be rescued only if she could pay a bribe of US$30 (equivalent to $900 in 2021). She had no money, so the children remained enslaved.What is the most famous quote by Harriet Tubman? ›
“There are two things I've got a right to, and these are, Death or Liberty – one or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them, kill me”.What was Harriet Tubman's real name and why did she change it? ›
1. Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross. She would later adopt the name "Harriet" after her mother: Harriet Ross. The surname Tubman comes from her first husband, John Tubman, who she married in 1844.What are 10 fun facts about Harriet Tubman? ›
- She was born 'Araminta Ross' ...
- She suffered a severe head injury as an adolescent. ...
- She escaped slavery in 1849. ...
- Nicknamed 'Moses', she never lost a single one of the many slaves she guided to freedom. ...
- She was the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War.
A runaway slave, Harriet Tubman faced the prospect of imprisonment and re-enslavement.What is a good thesis statement for Harriet Tubman? ›
Harriet Tubman Thesis Statement
Harriet Tubman was born a slave but grew up to be one of the most important and influential people in the American Civil War. She was born to Harriet and Ben Ross. Tubman was a slave to Edward Brodas.
What is Harriet Tubman's biggest accomplishment? Freeing 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad.What qualities make Harriet Tubman a good leader? ›
She served those she loved and she loved a great many. These and other attributes of Harriet Tubman's character and life reflected many servant leader attributes, including: Healing, Empathy, Persuasion, Foresight, Stewardship, Conceptualization, Building Community and Comitment to the Growth of People.Who was the first woman to lead a combat assault? ›
On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, became the first woman to lead a major military operation in the United States when she and 150 African American Union soldiers rescued more than 700 slaves in the Combahee Ferry Raid during the Civil War.Was Tubman a leader a hero or both? ›
NICKNAMED THE 'MOSES OF HER PEOPLE' FOR LEADING RUNAWAY SLAVES TO FREEDOM IN THE NORTH, HARRIET TUBMAN WAS THE MOST FAMOUS MEMBER OF THE UNDER- GROUND RAILROAD. SHE BECAME A CELEBRITY IN HER LIFETIME AND A HERO OF THE CIVIL WAR.How many people were saved by the underground? ›
According to some estimates, between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad helped to guide one hundred thousand enslaved people to freedom. As the network grew, the railroad metaphor stuck.What adjectives would you use to describe Harriet Tubman? ›
Powerful, determined, fearless and strategic are just some of the adjectives that can be used to describe Harriet Tubman, the woman who never lost a single passenger.Who was Harriet Tubman passionate about? ›
Tubman's passion for racial and gender equality drove her to challenge women's and African American's inferior political, economic and social roles through suffrage and civil rights activism the rest of her life. She died on March 10, 1913.What was Harriet Tubman's favorite color? ›
harriet tubman's favorite was believed to be orange.
In addition to leading more than 300 enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman helped ensure the final defeat of slavery in the United States by aiding the Union during the American Civil War. She served as a scout and a nurse, though she received little pay or recognition.What are 5 accomplishments of Harriet Tubman? ›
Known as the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman was enslaved, escaped, and helped others gain their freedom as a “conductor" of the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War.What was Harriet Tubman's most important thing? ›
Tubman is best known as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, and her legacy is awe-inspiring. She liberated about 70 people on more than a dozen dangerous missions to slave-holding states in the decade prior to the Civil War, and she assisted many others with her knowledge of safe spaces and escape routes.Why is Harriet Tubman important today? ›
Best known as the enslaved woman who brought emancipation to anyone who crossed her path, the legacy of Harriet Tubman's lifework has inspired countless people across generations and geographic locations. Tubman was born into chattel slavery as Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822.How many people DId Harriet save? ›
Myth: Harriet Tubman rescued 300 people in 19 trips. Fact: According to Tubman's own words, and extensive documentation on her rescue missions, we know that she rescued about 70 people—family and friends—during approximately 13 trips to Maryland.What does the name Harriet mean? ›
Meaning:home ruler. Harriet is a baby girl name of German origin. Derived from the Old German name Henriette and the baby boy name Harry, Harriet means “home ruler.” This baby name has flourished across the United States thanks to former American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.