A woman with tremendous courage, strong as a man, and cunning as a fox was Harriet Tubman. She was unable to read or write and yet Harriet made 19 journeys back to the Southern States to help free over 300 slaves, moving them to the Northern States and Canada. Harriet chose a dangerous way of life. Working with the Underground Railroad gave her popularity that angered slave owners but gave inspiration to slaves. During this time, the United States was close to war over the issue of slavery and Harriet was ready to help the Northern States in any way she could. Her vision was to give freedom to every black slave.
Araminta Harriet Ross was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820 or 1821. The exact date is not known. She was the child of Benjamin Ross, and her mother, Harriet Greene. Her master's name at the time was Edward Brodas. Throughout her childhood, she was known as Harriet.
Being born into slavery meant that you were property and had no rights. Even as children, slaves were expected to work long hours. Many slaves worked all day and long into the night. They were expected to work hard and fast and to be obedient to their masters. Some slave owners took good care of their slaves. However, some masters were not very kind and liked to make an example out of slaves that misbehaved or tried to run away. They were often beaten or whipped. As a child, Harriet was often hired out to work for other slave masters oftentimes doing housework. As she grew older, she was sent to work in the fields with other slaves. These people worked in fields that produced many kinds of crops including corn, potatoes, tobacco, and cotton.
Harriet was a small girl but grew to be strong physically and strong willed. When she had a goal in mind, Harriet was determined to carry it out. Seeing how she and other slaves were so commonly mistreated, angered her. She wondered if anyone could help them gain there freedom. The Bible story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt meant a lot to Harriet. The people of Israel were slaves like her people. One experience that greatly affected her life took place when she was trying to help another slave. Harriet's overseer was angry at the slave and when he went after the slave, Harriet blocked the doorway to stop him. The overseer took an iron weight and threw it at Harriet striking her in the head. She was near death for some time and had a deep cut on her forehead for nearly eight years. For the rest of her life, Harriet suffered severe headaches and sleeping spells.
In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, who was a free man. They lived close to the Brodas plantation in John's cabin. Harriet frequently talked about freedom but John was content with what he had. He thought escaping was too risky when they already had a nice living. It was said that Harriet was unhappy in marriage. She grew impatient with her husband since they did not share the same dream of freedom. One night, without telling anyone, she decided to escape from the plantation in the summer of 1849. Harriet found help and shelter in the home of a Quaker woman. The Quakers were opposed to slavery and had connections with the Underground Railroad. Different safe houses were a part of this secret system that aided slaves in their attempt to reach the North. Free blacks and sympathetic whites would help runaway slaves find food, shelter, transportation, and guide them on their trek. Much of Harriet's journey was during the night when it was easier to hide from slave hunters trying to recapture any escaped slaves. The North Star was her guide in the night that gave her hope and pointed her in the direction of freedom. Finally, Harriet crossed the state line of Pennsylvania. She was a free woman. In overwhelming joy she said, "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There 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 (Sterling, page 43, 1954)."
When Harriet arrived in Philadelphia, she began to work. Her hopes were to earn enough money to help get Harriet's family to freedom in the North. Soon Harriet Tubman joined William Still, an abolitionist, who was connected with the Underground Railroad. Mr. Still was instrumental in organizing the connections and financing of the railroad. Harriet soon joined the abolitionists and became a conductor for the railroad. Between 1850 and 1860, she saved money to make 19 trips to the South to free about 300 slaves. As stories of her bravery grew, she soon became known as "Moses," after the Biblical Moses who led the slaves out of Egypt. Though she was a hero to slaves, her popularity endangered her. After years of eluding slave hunters, white slave owners posted a reward of $40,000 for her capture. With the help of her allies and well planned routes, Tubman was never captured and the reward was never collected.
When the Civil War broke out between the North and the South in 1861, Tubman served with the Union army of the North. She shared the dream that President Abraham Lincoln had in bringing freedom to the slaves in the South. Harriet worked as a nurse, scout, and a spy for the Union and in 1863, she led a group of black soldiers under Colonel James Montgomery on a raid. Nearly 800 slaves were freed as a result.
After the war, Harriet Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, New
York. Since her husband John Tubman died in 1867, she married a
former slave and Union soldier, Nelson Davis in 1869. After his death
in 1888, Tubman continued to help the sick, poor, and homeless blacks
and support their efforts for black voting rights. A $20 per month
pension from the United States Government was eventually given to
Harriet for her service in the Civil War. She used the money to
support these causes. Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913. She will
always be remembered for her courage, bravery, kindness, and love.
Harriet Tubman was one person who began to help change peoples views
of slavery and freedom. She would be proud of the steps that have
been taken to remind humankind that we were all created equally.
Adams, Russell L. (1972). Great Negroes Past and Present. Chicago, IL: Afro-Am Publishing.
Hamilton, Virginia. (1993). Many Thousands Gone. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Johnson, Ann Donegan. (1979). The Value of Helping. LaJolla, CA: Value Communications.
Sterling, Dorothy. (1954). Freedom Train. New York, NY: Scholastic.
The Grolier Library of North American Biographies. (1994). Activists, Volume One. Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational Corporation.
Tubman, Harriet. (1996) . Harriet Tubman. [On-line]. Available:
1. Students will be able to identify famous people and events of the Civil War era.
2. Students will be able to identify hardships Tubman encountered by giving an explanation of what they would do in a similar situation.
3. Students will be able to list as a group 2 positive and 2 negatives effects of slavery.
4. Students will be able to create a time line with 10 historical events that occurred during Tubman's lifetime.
5. Students will be able to correctly answer 6 of 8 questions about other famous people during the time of Harriet Tubman.
6. Students will be able to create 2 different "routes to freedom" and identify the approximate distances and time for each route.
7. Students will explain in writing, 3 historical facts about Harriet Tubman.
Approximately a week and a half or 7 class periods.
Have students individually think of what they know about slavery, Harriet Tubman, the Civil War, Underground Railroad, and any famous people during this era of the 1800s. In pairs, have students share what they remember and write it down. Then have the whole class contribute to a class list on the chalkboard of everything that was shared. If time permits, share the "background" portion of the Harriet Tubman mini-unit.
Dress up like a southern farmer and tell how you helped some slaves escape from the South. "I'm under the leadership of a person called Moses, only this person is a woman who is a conductor for the Underground Railroad." Explain that she accomplished much for her people. Tell of the hardships and dangers of an escaping slave or helping one and what consequences could result if caught. The time period of her popularity was between the 1850s and 1860s around the Civil War period. Tell students that you will share a story of Harriet Tubman's life then begin reading the book "The Value of Helping" by Ann Donegan Johnson. Explain where this takes place by pointing to the state of Maryland on the United States map as you read. Continue pointing out places on the map throughout the story. At the conclusion of the story, students write an explanation answering: "If I were a slave, I would...." Students explain how they feel about being a slave, explain what they would do, and explain why/how they would carry out their plan.
Introduce the video "Follow the Drinking Gourd" with an explanation of why slavery existed and why others opposed it. Continue with showing of the video. Following the video, group students (4 to a group) and have each group list 2 negative effects and 2 positive effects of slavery. Have each group share their results with the class. Also discuss if the issue of slavery alone was a good enough reason to start the "War Between the States."
4. Time Line.
Using the following resources (story, video notes, history text, and encyclopedia), students will make a time line. Time line dates will begin at Tubman's birth (1920) and end with her death (March 10, 1913). Each student will make their own time line and include at least 10 historical dates. These dates may include events relating to famous people and their accomplishments, political events, battles, or other historical facts. Include dates from United States history only.
Students will be assigned to groups of 4 students. Each student will get one of the four short biographies previously prepared by the teacher with the aide of an Encyclopedia or other current references (see Activities References for one example). The biographies will be of William Still, Sojourner Truth, Frederick A. Douglass, and James Forten.
You may conclude with a class discussion about what they found most interesting about these people.
6. Map out a route.
Prepare copies of your county or state map for cooperative groups (4 students to a group). When students are in their groups, they must map out a course to free territory which you will determine. Give a starting point and a final destination. (For example, begin in Salt Lake City, UT and map out a route that you could walk to get to free territory in Logan, UT.) Each group must:
Have groups pair-up with another group and share the results explaining why they chose their particular route. Then have each group share their route with the class, the distance and time for the route, and reasons for choosing it. Discuss what route would be the best. This activity would help students appreciate how far some people had to travel on foot to reach free territory.
7. Learning Journal.
In a learning journal, have each student write an entry telling 3 historical facts they have learned in studying Harriet Tubman's life. Explain why these facts are important.
1. Contributions to Think-Pair-Share and class list will be assessed informally through observation.
2. After story reading, students will write how they feel about being a slave, what they would do in that situation, and why/how they would carry out their plan, and then assessed by the teacher.
3. Observations of group discussion and a group list of 2 positive and 2 negative effects of slavery will be assessed.
4. Assessment of time lines will be handed in and checked for 10 correct historical events.
5. Observation of student responsibility of taking part in learning and teaching as well as an 8 question "learning experience" will be given for assessment.
6. Observation of students willingness to take part will be assessed anecdotally and maps will be turned in for assessment.
7. Papers on three important ideas they have learned from the mini-unit will be assessed for correctness.
Adams, Russell L. (1972). Great Negroes Past and Present. Chicago, IL: Afro-Am Publishing.* James Forten, page 28.
* William Still, page 31.
* Sojourner Truth, page 33.
* Frederick A. Douglass, page 34-36.
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