The History of Harriet Tubman for Kids

Have you ever looked at money and wondered about the people whose pictures are on the bills in your country?  Most countries have images of important people from history on their coins and bills.  In America, most of the bills contain images of past presidents who did important things.  But as you know, from listening to this podcast, there are many people throughout history who have done important things that are not presidents!

This is why right now, in the United States, the government is working on plans to have the $20 bill redesigned.  The new version of the bill will have a picture of a woman that not everyone knows.  But she was an important person in American history.  Her name is Harriet Tubman.  When the bill goes into circulation, she will be the first African-American woman to be featured on American money. 

So who was Harriet Tubman?  Harriet Tubman was a human rights activist and former slave.  She fought during her lifetime for the end of slavery.  This is known as “abolition.”  She helped many people escape slavery during her lifetime.  She helped them get to freedom through a secret route called the “Underground Railroad.”  But let’s go back in time and see how she became such an amazing woman.

Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 in Maryland.  Her original name when she was born was Araminta Harriet Ross.  She had 8 brothers and sisters and her parents were slaves.  Her parents gave her the nickname “Minty” which was short for Araminta.  

Minty’s life as a child was hard because she lived in slave conditions.  A “slave” is legal property of another person and forced to obey them.  Minty loved her family, but they were separated when she was young.  Three of her sisters were sold to a different family and moved to the south to work on cotton plantation farms.  As slaves, Minty and her family often suffered violence.  Minty was beaten as a child by her “owners” which caused her to have injuries that lasted her whole life. 

Minty was inspired by her father, who spoke out when their “owners” wanted to separate their family even further.  They were planning to sell Minty’s younger brother to a different family to work on their farm, by Minty’s dad didn’t want anymore of his children sent away.  Her father resisted this and was successful.  To “resist” means to stand up against an action that you don’t believe in. Watching her father stand up for his family set a strong example that inspired Minty. 

When she was a teenager, Minty was hurt very badly.  She had been sent to the store to buy supplies for the farm and she came across a slave that had left the fields where he worked without permission.  The man’s “overseer” told Minty to help him get the runaway slave back.  She would not help.  The man threw a large weight at her and it hit her in the head.  She had headaches and trouble sleeping for the rest of her life. 

These experiences as a child and seeing how African-American people around her were treated inspired Minty to want to help end slavery as an adult. 

In 1844, Minty met a free black man named John Tubman.  Around that time, around half of the  African-American people in Maryland were free.  There is not much that is known about John Tubman, but Minty married him and changed her name to Harriet Tubman when she did.  The couple lived together for a number of years and were together when Harriet began her work with the Underground Railway.

In 1849, Harriet’s owner died.  She decided that she would escape slavery in Maryland and move to Philadelphia.  Two of her brothers, Ben and Harry, decided to come with her.  Her husband did not decide to go along.  On their way to Philadelphia, the three siblings saw a “wanted” poster with their pictures on it.  It offered a $300 reward if anyone captured and returned the three of them.  

The brothers were scared by this poster and decided to return to their owners plantation.  Harriet, however, refused to go back to living as a slave.  Instead she continued heading north towards Pennsylvania.  

Harriet travelled along a network known as the Underground Railroad.  The Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railroad for a train, it was a path that ran from states that had slavery to states where all people were free. Harriet travelled this path for nearly 90 miles to get to Philadelphia.  She is quoted as saying, “When I found I had crossed [the line into Pennsylvania], I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Harriet was truly happy to be free in a free state.  But rather than remaining safely in the North, Harriet decided that it was her mission in life to rescue her family and others living in slavery back home. 

In 1850, Harriet helped much of her family make the journey to Philadelphia via the Underground Railway. This was the first of many trips that Harriet made along the route to help guide others.  

Because of her work and leadership guiding others to safety and freedom, she was given the nickname “Moses” by the people that she helped.  This was a reference to the leader in the Old Testament who led the people of Israel out of slavery. Over time Harriet was able to help guide her parents, most of her siblings and approximately 60 other people to Pennsylvania where they could live free. 

Because so many slaves had escaped, the States passed laws allowing for former slaves that had escaped their home state to be captured and returned to slavery.  So Harriet changed the route of the Underground Railroad to Canada, where slavery was not allowed.

Harriet continued to help others during the Civil War in America.  She worked for the Union Army as a cook and a nurse, and later an armed scout and spy.  Harriet was the first woman to lead soldiers in the war. She led a raid at the Combahee River that liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.  Liberated means freed from imprisonment or slavery.

In 1859, a Senator who was also an abolitionist sold Harriet a small piece of land in Auburn, New York. Harriet moved there after the war and got remarried and raised children there.  Much of her family came to live with her there as well. 

Even though Harriet became famous for her work to lead slaves to freedom, she did not have a lot of money.  Others who believed in her cause gave money to her to help her live and she shared this money generously with her family and others who needed help. 

When Harriet was an old woman, the head injuries she had gotten as a child became more painful.  She went to a hospital in Boston to get brain surgery to help relieve the pain and the “buzzing” that she had regularly in her ears.  Unfortunately she because sick with pneumonia following the surgery and died in 1913. Harriet was buried with military honours at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

Harriet was known very far and wide while she was alive and she became an American hero and icon after she died.  An icon is a person or thing that is regarded as a symbol. Today, she continues to inspire Americans struggling for civil rights and their allies with her bravery and actions.  Because of her amazing legacy, the U.S. Treasury Department announced in April 2016 that she would replace Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill.  She was a freed slave and a freedom fighter, and for that, she emerged as the top choice for the first American woman to appear on U.S. currency. 

From Harriet Tubman, we can learn a great deal about overcoming hardships and the impact that an individual person can have.  Harriet dedicated her life to helping others.  She believed strongly in the cause she was working for, to free slaves, and took action and worked tirelessly to bring about her dream. 

Are there injustices that you have experienced or that you can see in the world around you?  What are some ways that you can take action to make the world a better place for all and to improve the lives of those who may be suffering?

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