The first day of February marks the beginning of African American History Month. Two years after the 1976 Presidential proclamation designating this month as National Black History Month, the U.S. Post Office released its Black Heritage stamp series. They couldn’t have chosen a better person to be the first recognized—Harriet Tubman. She was also the first African American woman commemorated with a stamp.
A few months ago, I was wow’ed by Kasi Lemon’s movie, Harriet, and Cynthia Erivo’s performance. Ms. Tubman also appeared in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant book, The Water Dancer. I started reading up on this icon. Unlike many other African Americans in history, hers is a name well-known. Harriet Tubman is synonymous with the Underground Railroad. But what did I not know about her? Plenty, it seems.
- Araminta Ross was the name given to her at birth (1820 or 1822). She went by “Minty.” She chose “Harriet” as her freedom name after her mother. “Tubman” was her husband’s surname when she escaped slavery.
- In 1859, Harriet Tubman helped John Brown plan the raid at Harper’s Ferry.
- Harriet Tubman suffered from a traumatic brain injury. While a teen, she was hit in the head with a metal weight. The story differs on whether it was intentional or not, although most accounts are that the metal projectile was meant for another slave. The injury left Harriet with seizures, narcolepsy, and pain. At one point, the pain was so intense that she convinced a Boston surgeon to operate. She refused anesthesia, instead choosing to bite a bullet like she had witnessed soldiers doing in the field during the Civil War.
- Speaking of the Civil War, she participated on the front lines, first as a nurse and cook. Later, as a Union spy and scout, providing useful intelligence on southern transportation routes. She was the first woman to lead a combat assault when she led 150 African-American Union troops. Their efforts during this battle led to the release of over 700 enslaved people. Upon her death, she was buried with full military honors.
- Harriet Tubman knew her native plants. She used plants in Maryland to cure Union soldiers of dysentery. Her medical knowledge was also useful against cholera and yellow fever.
- Manumission is the legal term for the process of enslaved people being freed by their owners. Although most enslaved people were supposed to be slaves for life, others were only supposed to be enslaved for a fixed amount of time. Harriet’s mother was one of these. Harriet hired a lawyer to prove manumission.
- Not surprisingly, Harriet Tubman later worked for women’s suffrage with Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony.
- We know many notable women in history. Most received little, if any, recognition. Of the more than 400 national parks, only 10 are named after women or feature an event in women’s history. Two of those 10 feature Harriet Tubman. The Underground Railroad Historical Park in Maryland focuses on her early life. The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in New York focuses on her later life.
Both parks show her to be the truly exceptional woman she was. And at some point, her face will be looking up at us from the $20 bill. I, for one, think it’s long past due.