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History Makers: Harriet Tubman

The Underground Railroad saved thousands from the hell of slavery, but one name will always stand out as the symbol of courage, selflessness and freedom, writes Jonny Wilkes

She had escaped from hell. The hell of bondage, racism, terror, degradation, back-breaking work, beatings and whippings that marked the life of a slave in the United States. Harriet Tubman ran away from her Maryland plantation and trekked, alone, nearly 90 miles to reach the free state of Pennsylvania. The treacherous journey meant travelling at night through woods and across streams, with little food, and fearing anyone who would happily send her back to her owners to collect a reward.

CHAINS THAT BIND US The Civil War saw many slaves attempt escape to fight for the Union – those who were caught suffered grave consequences

If not for a clandestine network of routes and safe houses, organised to aid ‘fugitive slaves’ heading north, Tubman may have never made it to Philadelphia. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” she recalled of her 1849 escape. “ffere 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.”

The Underground Railroad delivered Tubman to a place where she could live relatively safe from bondage, yet while others faced brutality and despair, she would risk her life as the network’s most famous conductor. Tubman escaped hell, only to turn and walk back into it.


Araminta Ross, Tubman’s birth name, would have been put to work on her owners’ plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, almost as soon as she learned to walk. Her eight brothers and sisters faced the same brutal introduction to their lives as slaves.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

The January 2017 issue of History Revealed.