Harriet takes the $20: Black Bodies, Historical Precedence, and Political Implications

By Megan McNish ’16

If you have been watching the news at all lately, you’ve probably seen that Harriet Tubman will be placed on the front of the $20 bill, while former President Andrew Jackson will be moved to the back of the bill. Immediately there emerged an outpouring of support for the proposition. However, in the week that has followed, others have questioned the meaning that will arise out of an African American woman and former slave being placed on American currency. Some have argued that it is not a fitting legacy for a woman who fought against oppression and the system, which American currency represents, while others have suggested that this change is long overdue. A few politicians have argued that this change is no more than an attempt at political correctness. I disagree. There are a number of very good reasons why Harriet Tubman deserves this honor which has been reserved largely for white men up to this point.

H Tubman
Photograph by H. B. Lindsley ca. 1860-1875. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Harriet Ross and was enslaved on the eastern shore of Maryland. Tubman suffered a traumatic head injury as a child, a result of a blow to the head she received from an overseer. For the rest of her life, Tubman suffered from epileptic seizures. Not one to be put down by her circumstances, she escaped from slavery in 1849, but returned to the South numerous times to free others who were enslaved. In addition to her work with the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a militant abolitionist. She was supposed to be at John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, but was ill and could not participate. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse and spy. She helped orchestrate and execute a raid on South Carolina plantations known as the Combahee River Raid. Throughout her life she worked towards equality for women and African Americans. She spent much of the later part of her life fighting for a pension for her service to the United States Army. In 1897, she was rewarded twenty dollars per month. Continue reading “Harriet takes the $20: Black Bodies, Historical Precedence, and Political Implications”

The Double Disadvantage: African American Women in White Male Memory

By Megan McNish ’16

In darkness the boat crept up the river, silent as death. The captain in charge was sure of himself, sure of the information on which he was acting and of those guiding him up the narrow river. The young woman, somewhere on the ship, was the most reliable woman in the region. As the sun rose over the horizon, the boats pulled up to the ferry dock and the soldiers departed. The slaves were ready and at first word flocked to the boats, pushing and shoving to make their way on board. In the chaos that followed, the two small boats managed to get away with close to 300 captives. After it was all over, newspapers announced the Combahee Ferry Raid’s success and its most famous participant, Harriet Tubman.

This subject may be familiar to some of you who follow the Compiler closely, as Becky Oakes wrote about the Combahee Ferry Raid a few years ago (see Becky’s post for a more thorough treatment of the event). It was undeniably an impressive feat. Tubman managed over the period of a few months to gather enough information to steal slaves right from the plantation and, though the event was fairly well known in its time, it is virtually absent from American historical memory today. Harriet Tubman’s role in the marginalized world of slaves is remembered, but her role in aiding the United States Military is all but forgotten.

Combahee River Raid. Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863.

Continue reading “The Double Disadvantage: African American Women in White Male Memory”

“A Woman Named Moses” – Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid

By Becky Oakes ’13

Shortly before midnight on June 2, 1863, three Union gunboats cautiously floated up the Combahee River, avoiding Confederate torpedoes based on information from a highly respected Union spy, a woman named “Moses.” Their destination? The rice plantations of the South Carolina low country, which contained soil so rich the crop they yielded was nicknamed “Carolina Gold.” However, this was no typical raid on Confederate property. The soldiers charged with this task were men of the 2nd South Carolina, an all black regiment, and by daybreak, over seven hundred and fifty slaves would be free.

And who was that trusted spy named Moses?

Harriet Tubman.

Tubman 1
Harriet Tubman

Typically introduced in fifth grade classrooms as the face of the Underground Railroad, the usual image associated with Tubman is that of her clandestinely transporting slaves to freedom under the cover of darkness. Her role during the Civil War is less well known, but no less dynamic. From the outset of the war, Tubman assisted Union soldiers and freed slaves in many different ways. She gained a reputation for nursing soldiers sick with dysentery with medicines made from roots, and for teaching freed slave women how to lead independent lives. She was also a passionate advocate for freedmen’s issues, and often brought them to the attention of military authorities. However, it was her skills in guerilla warfare and espionage that earned her the respect of the both Union officers and the northern press. Continue reading ““A Woman Named Moses” – Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid”