“I was the 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.” – Harriet Tubman at a suffrage convention, NY, 1896
Thirty-eight years ago today, on February 1, 1978, the United States Post Office unveiled the very first stamp in its Black Heritage Series, which honored Harriet Tubman, an extraordinary woman, a courageous freedom leader, and a true American hero. It was the very first U.S. postage stamp to honor a black woman.
Harriet Tubman, who was born Araminta “Minty” Harriet Ross, the fifth of nine children to enslaved parents in Maryland in 1822, endured the unthinkable horrors of slavery until she escaped in September 1849.
The fear of being sold following the death of her legal owner, Edward Brodess, was the impetus for her, along with her brothers, Ben and Henry, to make a run for freedom. According to Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., an historian and leading Harriet Tubman scholar and the author of Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, they traveled together for roughly three weeks, until her brothers were “overcome with fear and returned to the Eastern Shore.”
Harriet continued on her own, utilizing the Underground Railroad that was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore. “Traveling by night, using the North Star and instructions from white and black helpers, she found her way to Philadelphia through Delaware and possibly New Jersey.”
But despite securing her own freedom, Harriet made the courageous decision to return to the South to help rescue others. As Kate explains on her site,”Once she reached freedom in Philadelphia, she felt that liberty and freedom meant little without the people she loved. She vowed then to return and bring away her family and close friends.” The author adds, “Tapping into an already well oiled Underground Railroad network, she was incredibly successful. Over time, and after adding her own connections and trusted friends and colleagues, she became one of the most prolific Underground Railroad conductors of all time.”
Over a ten year period, 1850-1860, Kate states that “Tubman directly assisted 60 to 70 people, mostly family and friends, but also provided detailed instructions to another 60-70 or so freedom seekers who found their way to freedom on their own.”
In speaking of Harriet Tubman in an interview for History.com, Annette Gordon Reed of Rutgers University offered the following, which puts the extraordinary conviction and character of this woman in perspective. “Just imagine, you’ve gotten out of the institution of slavery; you’ve escaped and yet you come back. You have the courage and the care about other people to come back into a hell to try to get other people out of it. It’s just an amazing story.” She added that Harriet Tubman’s story is “not just about black people, but it’s about human beings caring for other people and having the courage to do what is right, even at peril to yourself.”
The 1978 Harriet Tubman stamp was the very first in the annual Black Heritage Series that, to this day, continues to celebrate African-American leaders, inventors, activists, sports figures, and culture-shapers whose lives changed history.
* Reward image credit: Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., “Harriet ‘Minty’ Tubman’s original runaway advertisement, offering a reward for her capture. Courtesy Bucktown Village Foundation. Discovered in a trash bin in 2003.”
For a comprehensive history on the life of this American hero, we recommend you visit Kate Clifford Larson’s dedicated Harriet Tubman biography site. Also, it was announced last year that HBO is embarking on an original film project based on Kate’s book, Bound for the Promised Land, in which Viola Davis will play Harriet Tubman.