[A photo of Harriet Tubman. She has her hair tied back and wearing a dark dress with a white skirt. The photo has a brown tint from age.]

Celebrating Black History Month Part 2 of 3: Harriet Tubman

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of Black people in the US. This is the second part of a series of three blog posts where we’ll learn about famous Black people with disabilities.

Harriet Tubman is maybe one of the most prominent figures in Black history who fought for social justice for Black people in the United States. Born in Maryland into slavery around 1822, Tubman grew up on a plantation with her mother and a few of her siblings. As was common for many enslaved people at the time, enslaved families were often separated from each other.

As a child, Tubman often cared for her master’s children, or her masters would hire her out to other families to care for their children. Tubman was often beaten severely. When she was a teenager one of her fellow slaves tried to escape. The overseer threw a 2 pound metal rod at the slave, but instead the rod hit Tubman in the head, causing her to pass out for two days. After this event, Tubman experienced narcoleptic and epileptic episodes that followed her into her adult years. She also received visions and images that she claimed were from God to help enslaved people escape into the North.

In 1849, Tubman’s master died, and his widow began making arrangements to sell his slaves, including Tubman. Fearing that her family will be separated, Tubman ran away. Tubman used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery, relying on freed Blacks and abolitionists to escape north into Pennsylvania.

Shortly after she escaped, she guided others, including some of her family members, through the Underground Railroad. She would begin each journey on Saturday nights in the winter to avoid slave captors and because the next post would be on Monday. She carried a revolver to protect herself and her escapees. One escapee wanted to go back, and Tubman pointed the gun at his head and told him that if he left the group, she would shoot him because he could put the rest of the group in danger. She led that group, including the man who wanted to go back, safely into southern Ontario.

Tubman later said, “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.”

When the Civil War broke out, Tubman served as a spy, scout, and nurse for the Union Army. She continued to fight to end slavery and supported abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown to emancipate all enslaved Black people. After the war ended, Tubman continued to advocate for equal rights for Black people and also joined the women’s suffrage movement. Tubman died in 1913 in her home in New York.

Although Harriet Tubman experienced epilepsy and narcolepsy, she continued to guide enslaved people through the Underground Railroad to freedom. One of her escapees even said that she would randomly fall asleep then woke up a few minutes later and continued their journey as if nothing had happened.

In reflecting on the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman, it becomes clear that her legacy is not only defined by her unyielding fight against slavery but also by her ability to triumph over personal challenges, including epilepsy and narcolepsy. Tubman’s unwavering commitment to social justice, her tireless efforts on the Underground Railroad, and her service during the Civil War exemplify her indomitable spirit. She remained courageous and resilient, despite facing the harsh realities of slavery and subsequent health issues. As we acknowledge Harriet Tubman’s remarkable journey, we honor not only her contributions to the abolitionist cause but also her remarkable strength in navigating both physical and societal obstacles. Her story serves as a testament to the power of determination, faith, and the unwavering pursuit of justice. Harriet Tubman’s legacy lives on, reminding us that even in the face of adversity, one person can make an indelible mark on history, fostering a legacy of courage and compassion for generations to come.