The Most Important African American Contributor to Society

March 5, 2008
By Hannah Hirschfeld, Choteau, MT

When considering the primary African American contributor to American society, I am surprised to find within my memory such a large number of candidates that I am overwhelmed simply choosing one figure. I’m fairly sure the most popular choice will be Martin Luther King Jr., who is the face of the African American civil rights cause. The character I have chosen is one that might not be quite as well-known among Americans today as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Barak Obama, or Oprah Winfrey. She is a person that has shaped history more than any other single individual, but is not largely praised or lifted up as the incredible, determined, successful person that she was. The woman I have chosen, a brave runaway slave who used her talents to aid hundreds of her fellow African Americans, is Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman was born around 1820 to slave owners in Maryland. She received brutal treatment throughout her childhood and was expected to do difficult slave labor even as a little girl. Many times she was beaten, and once an outraged slave owner threw a metal weight at her head, gravely injuring her. She was stricken with temporal lobe epilepsy that plagued her for the rest of her life. When she was thirty years old, she made her daring and treacherous escape to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She followed the network of houses and hiding places set out by the Underground Railroad. When she reached her destination, she realized that she could help others escape the wrath of slavery and help them make a new life for themselves. She became a conductor for the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves on their way to freedom. On a daily basis, she trudged through forests and swamps leading runaways to the nearest safe house or hiding place. She knew all the hidden points along the underground railroad that could provide a hot meal and safe, secret lodgings for a night. In all, she made 19 rescue expeditions, freeing over 300 slaves, and was praised by Frederick Douglass for, “Never losing a passenger.”

Although Harriet Tubman is most well-known for her work with the Underground Railroad, her talents were not limited to aiding runaway slaves. At different times in her life she was a spy, a soldier, a women’s rights activist, an abolitionist, a refugee, a nurse, and, what we would call today, an escape artist. Harriet worked with people such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Colonel James Montgomery, who used Tubman’s advice to capture Jacksonville, Florida during the Civil War, General David Hunter, and John Brown, who organized the raid on Harpers Ferry. She was honored by a women’s suffrage newspaper, which published articles detailing her services to the nation. One of Harriet‘s greatest achievements was the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, a home that she, along with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, founded to offer an environment suitable for indisposed senior colored people. Harriet’s accomplishments are too many to list in a single essay, and, sadly, many of them will go unknown because of a shortage of historical writings and a lack of exposure of a colored person’s achievements.

If Harriet’s personal achievements alone are not enough to warrant her the title of “Most Important African American Contributor to Society,” then the lives of those she freed should be. Who knows how many of the citizens she guided to freedom, or their descendants, went on to make scientific discoveries, become influential politicians, or serve our country as soldiers. If it were not for Harriet Tubman, those people most likely would have died in slavery and would never have had the opportunity to make their mark on history and American society.

Harriet Tubman was a woman who jeopardized her life day after day to give basic opportunities to blacks bound by the cruel bonds of slavery. Without Harriet‘s help, most runaway slaves would not have had the knowledge and resources to begin such an escape let alone be able to make it through their first night of hiding. Although her work with the Underground Railroad was Harriet’s greatest achievement, she was not limited to that sort of challenge only, but also participated in many other ventures. She, more than any other African American in history, risked her own safety and welfare to participate actively in the abolitionist cause.

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