Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross, to enslaved African-American parents in the state of Maryland, probably in 1822. The only grandparent we know about, her maternal grandmother, Modesty, had arrived on a slave ship from Africa. Maryland was one of a middle-tier of Staes where slavery existed, but less prevalently than further south. Tubman’s home was – very relatively speaking – a short journey to Pennsylvania , the closest of the free states of the North. It was conceivable, and at very great risk, possible for slaves to flee over the state border to win freedom. The famous black activist, Frederick Douglas, who Tubman went on to work with, escaped from Maryland in 1838, a little more than a decade before Harriet.
The sheer amazingness of Harriet Tubman’s life starts simply with the fact that she was one of the tiny minority of slaves before the civil war, rebellious and confident enough to flee her owners. It continues with the fact that , very unusually, she made the journey to Philadelphia alone. She did this despite the severe headaches, seizures and bouts of unconsciousness that plagued her continually through her life after a skull fracture inflicted by an overseer when she was 13.
Tubman escaped alone in 1849, but developed to her full stature as a leading figure among a growing activist movement to overthrow slavery and transform US society through the 1850s. After decades of beleaguered organising and slow growth, abolitionism and those influenced by it became decisive in the revolutionary crisis of the 1850s and 60s. In 1863, after the North’s war took a more radical turn towards destroying slavery, Tubman became a spy and guide for the US army. She led black soldiers in a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina, rescuing many hundreds of slaves on one expedition. She was the only woman to lead troops during the civil war. Tubman lived to 1913, campaigning for women’s rights and women’s suffrage as well as black rights.