How Harriet Tubman Worked

Portrait of Harriet Tubman at her home in Auburn, New York; Tubman was a staunch abolitionist, spy for the Union Army and a champion for the elderly. Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

She stood just 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall; never learned to read or write; and spent her childhood and young adulthood as another person's property. She suffered most of her life from brutal headaches and seizures as the result of a beating. She never made much money in her lifetime, and lived humbly, eating food that she grew in garden.

But despite all that, Harriet Tubman became one of the most famous and admired African-Americans in U.S. history. After escaping from slavery in 1849, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, bravely venturing back into the slave state of Maryland 13 times during the 1850s to help numerous other runaway slaves find their way north to freedom. During the Civil War, she headed south again to work as a spy and scout for the Union Army. After the conflict, she established the first nursing home for elderly African-Americans [source: Larson].

Those achievements have earned Tubman lasting fame. Both her early home on Maryland's Eastern Shore and her later home in New York state are now national historical parks [sources: National Park Service, Blakemore]. In 1978, she became the first African-American woman to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp [source: Smithsonian].

In 2016, the Obama Administration announced that Tubman eventually would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, becoming the first woman or minority to appear on U.S. currency. (In 2017, Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary for Obama's successor Donald Trump, indicated that he would review the decision, even as the currency redesign proceeded) [source: Mohsin].

And Tubman's life story remains so compelling that two movies about her — one starring Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and the other featuring Tony and Grammy Award-winner Cynthia Erivo — reportedly are in the works [source: Martinelli]. In 2017, a rare photograph of Tubman taken in the 1860s garnered a price of $161,000 at an auction [source: Cox].

Tubman has grown into such an American icon that her legend sometimes obscures the person behind it. In this article, we'll look at the facts of her life and misconceptions about it, as well as how she became such an enduring symbol of freedom.