Hero. An overused word, in my opinion. Not everything that is brave is heroic. Not everything that is good is heroic. An act must be both brave and good to be heroic. By brave I mean that the risk to the hero must be significant, and by good, I mean the intention and the outcome must be good.
Harriet Tubman blocked a slaveholder from trying to recapture and escaped slave when she was only a teen. For that act, her skull was crushed and she suffered a debilitating brain injury for the rest of her life.
Harriet escaped from the plantation as a young woman, leaving behind her beloved, husband who was already free and refused to go with her. Her sisters had already been sold, and she knew that she and her brothers were likely next. She led them away, but her brothers later returned, unable to overcome their fear. She risked her life but made it to Pennsylvania, where she was free.
Most other people’s story would end here, with a “and she lived happily ever after.”
But not Harriet.
Harriet returned south, even knowing there was a reward for her capture. If she’d been caught, she certainly would not have been treated gently. No doubt she would be used to “set an example” in a cruel and brutal way. She knew this. She returned anyway.
She rescued several family members and brought them safely to freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the northern states to return former slaves, so now she was no longer safe in the north either. She brought more family members and friends even farther – all the way to Ontario, Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act held no authority.
In all, Harriet returned about 13 times and freed about 70 people. None of her charges were ever caught.
I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Harriet Tubman at a suffrage convention, NY, 1896.
Harriet is well-known for her commitment to the abolitionist movement. She was also active in women’s suffrage.
If all this is not heroic enough, she joined the Union during the Civil War and was the first woman to lead a raid which liberated over 700 slaves.
I am sensitive to the idea that Harriet Tubman may, herself, not have approved of her face on the $20 bill. She may even have been truly offended that a nation who’s currency represents a cruel and unjust past, and continues to profit from inequality, now bears her likeness.
What does the Harriet Tubman $20 bill mean? It means that white Americans cannot ignore her story. The history cannot be denied when we look at it every day at the grocery store. It means that little black boys and girls will grow up with a hero. One who believed that they deserve everything. One who risked her life and never, ever gave up.
Maybe. Just maybe, the true value of this hero will be recognized.