What You Didn’t Learn About Harriet Tubman & The Underground Railroad In School

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
The biographical drama Harriet finally hit theaters on November 1 with Cynthia Erivo leading the charge as the American hero Harriet Tubman, who famously worked to free slaves. Her story is one of bravery, and one we've all heard and honored in classrooms growing up, but, like many complex histories, there are bits that most of us weren't told in school.
Other details, like Tubman's life before she joined the Underground Railroad and the courageous role she played during the Civil War, aren't nearly as well known — something the lengthy new biopic Harriet clearly aims to fix.
But even an entire movie dedicated to Tubman's journey doesn't show the full breadth of her life, so, here's a taste of the history that didn't make it into the film, or those school textbooks.

Harriet Tubman’s Early Life & Real Name

Historians place Tubman's birth date around 1820 on a plantation; she was born in Dorchester County, Maryland to parents Harriet (“Rit”) and Benjamin Ross. Tubman was born a slave which means she worked as a nursemaid at only five years old and was whipped from a young age, according to History.com, leaving her with lasting physical and emotional bruises. She was also separated from many of her family members (she had eight brothers and sisters) which was very common for Black families. 
Tubman was actually born Araminta Ross, or "Minty" as you'll see in Harriet. When she first made her way to the free North, she adopted a new name: Harriet, after her mother, and Tubman, after her first husband, John.

Harriet Tubman's Dreams & "Visions" From God

A random act of kindness by Tubman would leave lasting repercussions that affected her until her death. At age 12, she jumped in to help a fugitive slave who was being attacked and a weight was thrown at her head. The violent act left Harriet with traumatic effects including headaches, narcolepsy, vivid dreams, and hallucinations.
As a devoted Christian, she believed that these dreams were religious messages from God. These visions are converted into a storytelling device in Harriet as they are used to move the plot along and explain her almost miraculous ability to help slaves escape the South. 

How The Underground Railroad Got Started Before Harriet Tubman

Tubman holds the title as the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, but history teachers rarely get into how the network first began. There's no definitive information on when the Underground Railroad first started because it was, after all, supposed to be quite secret. However, the network was supposedly first mentioned in 1831 when a slave named Tice Davids was able to travel from Kentucky to freedom in Ohio. Even earlier than that, one of the earliest known persons to guide slaves to freedom was a Quaker from North Carolina named Levin Coffin. He began working to free slaves around 1813 when he was just 15 years old. 
Between 1835 and 1838, vigilance committees were first formed in New York and Philadelphia to protect escaped slaves from bounty hunters. The system then expanded to guiding the former slaves on their journeys to freedom. 

How Harriet Tubman Earned The Nickname "Moses"

There are varying numbers on how many people Tubman rescued, a common claim is that Tubman guided more than 300 people to safety over the course of 19 trips between 1850 and 1860. And it was her multiple trips from the South to the North that earned her the nickname "Moses."
Tubman earned that nickname because she is said to have never lost a "passenger" by coming up with new techniques to ensure her success. According to PBS, Tubman's techniques included leaving on a Saturday night because a runaway notice wouldn’t be able to run in a newspaper until Monday morning. She also carried a gun for protection and is said to have lived by the motto “you’ll be free or die” as she guided people to freedom — a line Erivo passionately recites in the film. 

Harriet Tubman's Dedicated Collaborators

Harriet is a biographical piece, but, like many of the “true story” films, not everything is 100 percent factual. In the historical drama, Tubman teams up with William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) to rescue slaves. While Still really did work with Tubman, the fictional Buchanan stands in for the numerous other collaborators that made Tubman's work possible.
According to Historical Society Pennsylvania, Tubman's associate Still was the chairman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee and was tasked with recording the personal accounts of the escaped slaves who made it to Philadelphia. He published his work, The Underground Railroad Records, in 1872 with each of the detailed the experiences. The HSP mentions that Still also helped approximately 800 people escape slavery and that he collected letters, sketches, memos, and ransom notes from them along the way. 
Two more historical figures who collaborated with Tubman were writer Frederick Douglass and abolitionist John Brown. Douglass is said to have hidden a total of nearly 400 people in his Rochester, New York home to help them on their journeys for freedom in Canada.
As for Brown, that's where Tubman's visions come back into play; she supposedly had a vision of Brown before the two officially met in 1858, according to Biography. She shared his goal of eliminating slavery and he looked to her for help when he attacked slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry.

Harriet Tubman Was Also A Spy During The Civil War

The beginning of the Civil War in 1861 quickly connected the work of the Underground Railroad to the Union fight against the Confederacy. Because Tubman had traveled through the South so many times, she was a valuable informant for the Union military commanders, according to the National Women’s History Museum. So, Tubman disguised herself as an older woman to work as a Union spy and guerilla operative, gaining tactical information about the Confederates from slaves in the South. Later, she helped her informants start new lives in the North.
And if she wasn't already one of the most inspiring Americans who ever lived, Tubman also worked as a nurse during the Civil War. According to the Harriet Tubman Historical Society, her experience with herbal medicine helped her nurse Union soldiers and escaped slaves back to health. 

What Else Did Harriet Tubman Do?

After the Civil War ended, Harriet moved to Auburn, New York and married former slave and Civil War Veteran Nelson Davis, her second husband. But her fight for justice wasn’t over. She then began working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to fight for women’s suffrage, traveling around the Northeast in an effort to spread the word.
From there, she still found new ways to help others and in 1896, Tubman opened the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, a nursing home for the poor.
Though Tubman eventually died from pneumonia on March 10, 1913, her legacy will be kept alive through the numerous books, museum exhibits, and, of course, movies like Harriet that spread the story of her extraordinary life.

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