Book Review: Who was Harriet Tubman?

“With rare courage, she led over three hundred Negroes up from slavery to freedom.”

-         Auburn, New York Courthouse plaque honoring Harriet Tubman

 [Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair] Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

[Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair] Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

Most kids know who Harriet Tubman is – the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, the fearless former slave who continuously journeyed down into the South and led other slaves to Canada to freedom. Yes, Harriet did all that, but in her long life she did so much more.

My daughter Ellie and I, always the bookworms, read the book Who was Harriet Tubman? by Yona Zeldis McDonough together, and so we are reviewing the book together.

Why was Harriet called “Moses”? Because like Moses of the Hebrew Bible, she led her people to freedom. As she led them she often sang old spirituals about Moses, as she led her “passengers” on the Underground Railroad to Canada, to the “Promised Land”.

How did Harriet get started helping runaways? Known as Minty as a girl, she earned the name Harriet, after her mother, after she stood up to an overseer and protected a runaway slave when she was only thirteen or fourteen. 

Harriet had always dreamed of freedom. She finally set off on her own when she was in her twenties, and made it to the free state of Pennsylvania. But she was not content in her freedom when so many others still lived in slavery. For ten long years, she made journeys into the South and led people through the Underground Railroad to freedom. She even brought her aging parents to the North on a cart she built herself. Harriet became a legend, and her story of courage still lives to this day.

This is the part of Harriet’s life that most people know. But Harriet lived till 1913 and lived a life of service until she died. She served as a Union spy during the Civil War, and also as a nurse where she used her mother’s herbal medicine to heal wounds and diseases such as dysentery. She again became a legend, this time as a healer.   

Harriet was a warrior, before, during, and after the war. She fought for freedom in so many ways, and this didn’t stop after the slaves were freed and the Civil War was ended. She went to Auburn, New York to live and spent her days taking care of Blacks in need. She never turned anyone away. Yet taking care of needy folks cost money – money she didn’t have. But Harriet was a storyteller. Imagine sitting at her feet and listening to the tales she had to tell, tales of narrow escapes and tales of healing wounded soldiers. It was her stories that brought Harriet the money she needed to care for the people who came to her.

Harriet told her stories to a woman named Sarah Bradford, who collected them and published them in two books. One, her biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, was published in 1869, and the second, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, was published in 1886. These books brought her an income, but she still worked as a speaker and even sold vegetables she raised in her garden door to door, all to the care for people in need. Harriet never stopped working for others. She died at the age of 93, finally reaching her Promised Land.

Many people are famous for one thing, and we never know about how much more they did within their lifetime. Harriet Tubman is famous mainly for her work on the Underground Railroad, but this comprised only ten years of her life. Reading her biography, especially one such as Who was Harriet Tubman? which tells her story with rich narrative, tells of all the other self-sacrificing work she did in her lifetime. Reading biographies of courageous and hardworking people who dedicated their lives to others sets an example for our kids to live lives of service. Historical figures our kids can look up to as role models come to life when we read their biographies. Ellie loved the book we read about Harriet Tubman so much she started picking up the books I have on the Underground Railroad to find out more about her and the work she did. Now we are planning a trip to the Levi Coffin home to visit an actual site on the Underground Railroad so we can see what it was like with our own eyes. The life of Harriet Tubman inspired Ellie to learn, and to serve others in need. 


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