Harriet Tubman, a great American leader and freedom fighter will be honored on the new US twenty dollar bill, booting former president Andrew Jackson, a slave owner with a controversial legacy, to the back.
We can’t help but appreciate how far her now famous feet took her, helping her to escape slavery and lead hundreds of other slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She overcame physical disabilities, trekked hundreds of miles through unfriendly territory, and fought for the freedoms that many of us take for granted today.
An American Legend
Although many people are well aware of her work as an abolitionist, many others do not know that she significantly contributed to the North’s victory in the Civil War, working as a Union spy who led raids deep in enemy territory. She was also a tireless fighter for a woman’s right to vote — all accomplished with a physical disability.
Tubman was as tough as nails: stories abound about her strength and remarkable ability to persevere without complaint. Scholars today debate her particular disability. Some argue she suffered traumatic brain damage in childhood when she was hit in the head by a heavy lead weight. This may have led to what we now know as epilepsy or narcolepsy. We have no medical records for her, so it is impossible to know for sure.
The Underground Railroad was one of the most significant grassroots movements in American history. It was a giant step toward fulfilling America’s democratic promise. By risking everything, Tubman dedicated herself to the fight against slavery as soon as she freed herself from those very same shackles.
Heroism Despite Hardships
Despite her imperfect health and inferior status, Tubman accomplished more in her life than she is typically remembered for. Among her greatest achievements was organizing a raid on the Combahee River, where she led Union gunboats upriver to liberate over 750 slaves, deep in the heart of Confederate territory. Historical texts recall that she had a sore tooth that day: instead of letting the pain distract her from her mission, she pulled out her pistol and knocked it out of her mouth!
Later in life Tubman was an outspoken advocate for women’s right to vote. She would go to the many state conventions to speak on women’s suffrage, even though many cities were still severely segregated at the time. Imagine the strength of this woman, walking “home” to sleep at the train station, while the other dignitaries slept in soft hotel beds.
Remembering Remarkable Feet
An interesting historical bookmark is that Ms. Tubman died the same year that Rosa Parks was born, another African American woman whose tired feet sparked a historical revolution.
Thankfully people in the African American community kept Tubman’s reputation and legacy alive, though there was no scholarly biography until 1943. Then in 2004 three biographies came out at once which led to her historical renaissance, for which we should all be thankful.
The announcement marks a great day for those of us interested in history. No chiseled features of a dead white Founding Fathers on the new twenty, but a strong woman of color who played a significant role in redefining freedom and helping America to fulfill its promise of independence.
Today University Foot and Ankle Institute joins millions of Americans in celebrating the legwork and the legacy of this extraordinary woman.
More about Harriet Tubman
- About Harriet Tubman from the History Channel
- Hariet Tubman on Wikipedia
- Harriet Tubman Ousts Andrew Jackson in Change for a $20 from NY Times