How Harriet Tubman Worked

A Humble Philanthropist and Advocate for the Elderly

Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged
After the Civil War, Harriet Tubman opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Epics/Getty Images

After the Civil War ended in a Union victory in 1865, Tubman left her position and set out for the town of Auburn, New York, where she and her family had settled on property that the state's former governor, William H. Seward, had sold her on generous terms. But on the way, she got a rough reminder that the struggle to achieve freedom for African-Americans was just beginning.

According to Tubman biographers James A. McGowan and William C. Kashatus, Tubman was accosted by a train conductor, who refused to honor her soldier's pass for a train ticket. They got into an argument, and he and several passengers threw her into the baggage car, breaking her arm and three ribs. She was unable to work for months, and the woman who'd helped to defeat the Confederacy was compelled to accept handouts from neighbors and local grocers to feed her family [source: NPS].

But Tubman was too tough to despair. Once she healed, she began growing vegetables and raising chickens, worked as a domestic and took in boarders. She fell in love with one of her guests, a former slave and Union Army veteran named Nelson Davis, who was 22 years her junior, and the two married in 1869.

But Davis' ill health and some other setbacks meant that Tubman continued to struggle to make ends meet for the next several decades [source: McGowan and Kashatus]. While the federal government wouldn't give her a pension for her wartime service as a spy, after Davis's death in 1888, she was able to collect a widow's stipend, and eventually got a pension for having worked as a nurse in the latter part of the war [source: Larson].

Despite her own humble circumstances, Tubman was determined to keep helping others as well. In 1896, she scraped together enough money to buy a second plot of land alongside her Auburn property, where she started a home for elderly African-Americans. Seven years later, she turned the property over the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, of which she was a member, with the understanding that the church would continue to run the home. Tubman continued to live next door until her own health began to decline, at which point she became one of the residents at the home she had founded. She passed away there in 1913, at the age of 90 [sources: NPS, Larson].

Harriet Tubman's Legacy

Harriet Tubman Harriet Tubman
In 2016, the Obama Administration announced that Harriet Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, though the current Trump Administration has yet to follow through on the commitment.
Library of Congress

After Tubman was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, her fame continued to grow. During World War II, after a successful war bond drive by the National Council of Negro Women, a Liberty ship was christened the SS Harriet Tubman in her honor [source: Larson]. She became the subject of numerous biographies and children's books, and the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was recognized as a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Four years later, she became the first African-American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp [source: Larson].

In 2016, the Obama Administration went a step further, as then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson — a slaveholder — on the $20 bill. Some observers welcomed that move as a sign of the nation's progress. "It speaks volumes that we can recognize [Tubman] as this great American hero and image of what it means to be American," Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history and African-American studies at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times.

Trump Administration Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declined to commit to putting Tubman on the $20 bill — "Right now, we've got a lot more important issues to focus on," he told CNBC in August 2017. But the resulting controversy may only add to the legend of Harriet Tubman.

Author's Note: How Harriet Tubman Worked

Before I took on this assignment, I knew about Harriet Tubman mostly only in the context of the Underground Railroad. It was uplifting to learn about her courageous work as a Union spy during the Civil War, and about her tireless efforts afterward to help the poor and the elderly. To me, her story really exemplifies the true greatness of America — the ordinary people who, throughout our history, have taken it upon themselves to fight against injustice and work for the good of us all.

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