One of my fondest memories of 4th grade was the day I dressed up as Rosa Parks for a history assignment based of of black history month. That day spurred my interested for everyone that was involved in the Civil Rights Movement the abolition of slavery. I found children’s books on black heroes and entrepreneurs, my favorite being a picture book with Madam C.J Walker, Granville Woods, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman was especially interesting, due in part that I actually believed that she ran an underground railroad with trains, but I found her nobility of spirit to be awe-inspiring. The stories I learned about her were so valiant and daring that they made me excited to learn about history. If such an interesting woman could exist back then, who else made their place in history? After I got into high school, I focused my academics on the maths and sciences, so I put aside my historical interests. I never really got into the darker part of black history. I kept my inspiring tales of black leaders, but I never really knew the lengths they went to be successful and the value of the risks they took, including the risks Harriet Tubman took to lead her kin to freedom. These risks included the use Of Harriet Tubman’s pistol.
In 2013 Harriet Tubman’s personal pistol, along with her sword, were displayed at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Bennet). According to historian Kate Larson, there is a common perpetuated myth that she carried a rifle with her on slave rescue missions (Larson). In reality she kept with the more sensible pistol for protection from slave catchers and to encourage weak-hearted runaways from turning back and risking the safety of the rest of the group during her Underground Railroad missions (Larson). I find the image of Tubman with a sword and pistol to be dashing and heroic, especially considering her past.
Harriet Tubman was born as a slave in Maryland. Sometime between 1834 and 1836, she received a head injury from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer at another fleeing slave (Larson). The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures, and periods of semi-consciousness, likely resulted in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which plagued her for the rest of her life (Larson). After her master died Tubman ran for freedom in fear of her being sold or worse due to her refuse status. After amassing resources and gathering strong connections with colleagues Harriet Tubman went back to lead those she left behind to freedom, along with her pistol. From 1850 to 1860, she rescued about 70 people – family and friends – during approximately 13 trips to Maryland (Larson).
Running away from slavery was no easy task, let alone for an illiterate, wounded woman. There were numerous safeguards that masters used to discourage slaves from running away, including the bonds of marriage and children. Slave masters would allow their slaves to be married in informal ceremonies as a way to promote loyalty and for the supply of their offspring (Dunaway 117-119). Masters even allowed slaves to marry “abroad” or to marry someone off of the plantation (Pittman). Slave owners encouraged slave women to begin having children as young as 15 years old (Dunaway 119). A slave that understood how to use a gun was also rare, considering how it was made illegal for them to carry arms after Virginia passed the first slave code stating: “Act X. All persons except the African slaves are to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and the council. (June).”In spite of these social determinants and Tubman’s own abroad marriage to a free man she still managed to flee and later become the face of the famous Underground Railroad (Larson).
Harriet Tubman was not the only person looking for freedom. Slaves did not just sit idle waiting for liberation and many fought for change. Sometimes this fight included violence, an example being slave revolts. Slaves like Gabriel Prosser, a literate blacksmith slave who planned a revolt in Richmond but was ultimately convicted of conspiracy before it could take place in 1800, and Nat Turner, a slave that set up a revolt across Southhampton country with 40 slaves killing at least 55 white people, used this method (Africans in America). The knowledge of the risks they took and the prices they paid can put violent slave resistance in a new perspective. It’s so easy to get lost in the heroics of famous black abolitionists without looking at the grit and grime of what resistance could cost the resisters and those around them. After Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner’s revolts, blacks were put under a even higher amount of watch, people that weren’t even involved in the revolts were lynched, and black codes ran rampant (Africans in America). Though the righteousness of their actions is heavily debatable they have their place in the history of slave resistance. They garnered fear from white masters of what slaves could do and acted as an example of what their kin was capable of.
A second example of violent resistance can be seen with the Civil War which also shows an instance of Harriet Tubman’s significance. She became the first American woman ever to lead an armed raid into enemy territory, while carrying a sharpshooter’s rifle, during the Civil War (Larson). Tubman also worked as a nurse for the Union army, and later as a spy to scout behind the Confederate Lines (Drunk History). Using her knowledge gained from spying and colleagues, she became the first woman to command a military operation when she guided a regiment up the Combahee River, burning plantations and freeing around 750 slaves in 1863 (Drunk History).
Harriet Tubman’s pistol is reflective of these examples of slave resistance.An illiterate, refuse slave woman, using a gun in a time when it was illegal to free slaves shows how blacks fought against the system of oppression that suffocated them. As I have learned from the course, slave resistance was not just successfully living though slavery with soul food, music, and songs (though these factors absolutely came into play in everyday slave life). People needed courage, intelligence, and connections to be liberated from the bondage of slavery. Tubman’s use of this weapon shows her bravery to protect herself, her understanding that slaves needed an extra push to make their steps to freedom, and her networking history to obtain and know how to use such a weapon. The knowledge of what she did to protect her history even more inspirational, and I’m sure if the child version of me knew about her added piece of equipment, I
probably would have begged for shooting lessons instead of ballet classes.
Larson, Kate Clifford, Ph.D. “Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. Kate Clifford Larson, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.harriettubmanbiography.com/>.
Bennet, Lanetra. “Harriet Tubman Pistol & Sword on Display at FAMU..” WCTV RSS. CBS, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.wctv.tv/home/headlines/Harriet-Tubman-Pistol-and-Sword-on-Display-at-FAMU-192089931.html>.
Comedy Central. “Drunk History – Harriet Tubman Leads an Army of Bad Bitches.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpTf1GFjCd8>.
Dunaway, Wilma A.. The African-American family in slavery and emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print
June Purcell Guild, ed. Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from Earliest Times to the Present (Afro-American Historical Society of Fauquier County, Virginia: 1996)
Pittman, Lashawnda. “Reproductive Exploitation and Child Mortality.” University of Washington, Seattle. 20 Nov. 2015. Lecture.