Harriet Tubman Liberated Herself On This Day In History

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Determined to live free, Harriet Tubman tried more than once to escape slavery. In 1849, she seized an opportunity.

Hiding by day and traveling by night, Tubman stealthily journeyed through her native Maryland, then Delaware and, finally, Pennsylvania.

There in Philadelphia — birthplace of American democracy, where the Quaker abolitionist movement thrived, and home to Seventh Ward, the largest community of free African-Americans — her new life began.

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” said Tubman, born Araminta Ross circa 1820 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “There was such a glory over everything.”

Glory, indeed. Today (Sept. 17, 2019) marks the 170th anniversary of self-liberation for Tubman — an abolitionist, Union Army scout, spy and nurse during the Civil War, a suffragist, humanitarian and more. 

As America commemorates 1619, when “20 and odd” Africans landed at Fort Monroe in the Virginia Colony 400 years ago, her legacy feels even more relevant. 

Read on for other locales tied to Tubman and fellow African-American heroes and sheroes whose contributions shaped America.

New York

In 2013, Congress created legislation that established two national parks; one is in Maryland, where Tubman was born, and the other in upstate New York, where she spent her final years. 

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park New York includes: the Harriet Tubman Residence (she purchased it in 1859); her church, Thompson Memorial AME Zion; the Tubman Home For the Aged; and The Harriet Tubman Visitor Center

Tubman (who was twice married and adopted a daughter) died in 1913 around age 92 and was buried with military honors at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.


Tubman became a famed “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses, churches and farms that offered shelter and safety. 

She risked her life to make repeated trips back to Dorchester County, Maryland, ushering her family, friends and others to freedom.

In 2013, around the 100th anniversary of her death, President Barack Obama established a national Harriet Tubman monument in Maryland. 

Today, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park created by Congressional legislation honors her courage.    

“Maryland has the most documented successful escapes,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who recently proclaimed September as International Underground Railroad Month.

Sites abound in Maryland where one can explore Tubman’s history.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway is a driving tour where one can explore the secret network of trails, marshy waterways and safe houses used by freedom seekers. 


The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center and State Park,which opened in March 2017, has exhibits, photos, research facilities and a museum store. Brodess Farm is where Tubman spent her early years. 

Also in this region is the Bucktown Village Store, where an overseer chasing a runaway slave threw a two-pound weight that struck young Tubman. It cracked her skull, causing periodic blackouts all her life.

Once Tubman became an abolitionist, she made several trips to Boston to speak alongside Frederick Douglass, the famed orator and abolitionist who was also born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; he escaped slavery while being hired out in Baltimore. 

The Following in His Footsteps: Maryland’s Frederick Douglass Driving Tour traces his story.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service has Network to Freedom sites and the Maryland Department of Tourism has produced an Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Guide that highlights other freedom fighters.

Says Rev. Dr. Tamara England Wilson, chair of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, these stories can “inspire each of us today to do our part in ensuring that all people enjoy the freedoms that this nation affords.”

Richmond, Virginia

When the first Africans landed in the Virginia Colony in 1619, the roots of slavery in what would become the United States of America began. Historians say one in four African-Americans have roots in Richmond.

Indeed, the city’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood was once the site of America’s second largest slave trading market, and there is an African burial ground under the asphalt that national and local advocates are fighting to preserve. 

Richmond is among the regional sites where the feature-length movie Harriet was filmed on location in the fall of 2018. 

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release.
Credit:  Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The Focus Features production, helmed by acclaimed director Kasi Lemmons, stars Cynthia ErivoLeslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monae.  

The producers, cast and crew spent time in the city, Margaret Finucane of the Virginia Film Office told BET.com. “Special local promotions around the project will be unveiled in October,” she said of the film, slated for theatrical release in November.

Excitement about the Tubman movie builds on the city’s rich African-American history.

Virginia is ground zero for America incorporated,” said Gary L. Flowers, a community historian and radio host who provides Black history tours of his hometown. “In the heart of the Confederacy, our African-American citizens made astonishing achievements that changed the world.”

Flowers cited Historic Jackson Ward, a neighborhood once known as “The Harlem of the South,” as the center of gravity for Black Richmond. 


It’s home to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as well as statues dedicated to classic Hollywood movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Maggie Walker, the first African-American woman in history to charter a bank in 1902. The Maggie Walker Historic Site tells her incredible story.

Arthur Ashe, the only African-American man to ever win a singles title at Wimbledon, is a native son of Richmond. The late tennis legend is honored with a statue on Monument Avenue, the lone African-American among Confederate figures, and a local intersection was re-named Arthur Ashe Boulevard this summer.

Graduate Richmond, a hip boutique hotel, pays homage to Ashe throughout the property. Rooms and hallways feature artwork with his likeness, and the onsite cafe, Brookfield, is named for the park where he once played.

Ashe, along with fellow Virginians such as Missy Elliott, are part of the new exhibit “Determined: The 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality” at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture

This year, Richmond Region Tourism and the Black Experience Initiative, an advisory board of community members, launched BLK RVA

The new campaign provides opportunities for residents and tourists to support Black-owned businesses and culture while telling important stories of the historic landmarks that make the community what it is today.

“The Black experience in Richmond is rooted, yet rising,” says BLK RVA advisory board chair Enjoli Moon, founder of the city’s annual Afrikana Independent Film Festival. “This is a place where we connect with our past, celebrate the present, and look toward a bright future.”

South Carolina 

During the Civil War, Tubman was reportedly the first woman to lead an armed military operation, the Combahee River Raid, in South Carolina. 

In tandem with Colonel James Montgomery and an African-American infantry regiment, she helped defeat rebel forces and destroy their weapons. 

During that 1863 mission, Tubman helped shepherd hundreds of slaves on nearby plantations to freedom in boats. Apparently, say historians, some fled with food still cooking in their pots! 

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