Anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, who herself escaped brutal slave owners in 1849, will become the first woman and first African American to be featured on a U.S. currency note starting in 2020. Her story as a “conductor” during the 19th century on the “Underground Railroad” is already well known to Americans and is being circulated anew thanks to a historical park that opened in 2017 in the part of rural Maryland where Tubman was born and raised.
The park attracts visitors from all parts of the globe who are curious about Tubman and the legendary Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes, passageways and safe houses used by slaves seeking freedom.
Angela Crenshaw, the park’s assistant manager, said visitors who are unfamiliar with the history will ask her questions like ‘Where is the station?’ and ‘Where are the tracks?’
But there was no real train. Runaway slaves traveled in the woods, at night, navigating by the North Star. They used a boat when they could, to prevent dogs from picking up their scent. Runaways were smuggled in hidden compartments of carriages and met in deserted places like cemeteries. Many used disguises. Throughout their journey, they were pursued by slave catchers and others who hoped to collect cash rewards offered for their capture.
Their “railroad without tracks” was run by a network of sympathetic blacks and whites who broke the law to help and hide fleeing slaves. By using railway terms like “stations” and “conductors” they were able to maintain secrecy. Working on the Underground Railroad was one of the first forms of civil disobedience in the United States.
Quaker meeting house
Fugitive gathering place
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say: ‘I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,’” Tubman once said.
Many passengers made their way to William Still, a free black man in Philadelphia who was one of the Underground Railroad’s most important conductors. In his memoirs, Still wrote that many of Tubman’s contemporaries feared for Tubman’s safety as her journeys took her away for weeks at a time. But “she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave hunters or slaveholders, seemed never to enter her mind. She was apparently proof against all adversaries.”
During the 1861–1865 American Civil War, Tubman served as a scout, spy and nurse. She also led an armed expedition in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 slaves. Later in life, continuing her passion for freedom, she became a strong advocate for women’s suffrage, befriending leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland.
When then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced the decision to put Tubman on the new $20 bill, he described her as “not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.” Now, more than 100 years after her death in 1913, she is about to become one of America’s most recognizable faces.