Harriet Tubman Day

Harriet Tubman Day

Date Observed: March 10
Location: Communities nationwide

Harriet Tubman, one of the most courageous conductors of the Underground Railroad, is honored on March 10, the date of her death in 1913. In 1990 the U.S. Congress designated March 10 as Harriet Tubman Day "to be observed by the people of the United States with appropriate ceremonies and activities."

Historical Background

Born around 1820 (estimates range from 1819 to 1822) in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman was named Araminta Ross by her slave parents. Years later she adopted her mother's first name, Harriet. She grew up among both slave and free African Americans who worked in plantation fields. Her father, Ben Ross, gained his freedom according to provisions of his owner's will. But the rest of the family, which included nine children, remained enslaved and in 1824 became the property of Edward Brodess.

In order to pay the costs of operating his land holdings, Brodess "rented" out his slaves or sold them to slaveholders in other states. Brodess sold some of Harriet's siblings and rented her to various planters, most of whom were cruel and given to beating slaves. Under harsh conditions she was forced to work at tasks ranging from long hours of housekeeping to heavy field work and felling timber. On one occasion, Harriet refused to help an overseer tie up a slave so he could be punished with a beating. The overseer threw a two-pound lead weight at her, hitting her in the head. She suffered an injury that caused periodic seizures for the rest of her life.

About the mid-1840s, she married John Tubman, a free African American. Harriet Tubman soon planned to escape slavery, hoping to take some of her family with her. But John Tubman refused to leave, and during her first effort to run away, her brothers turned back. In 1849, Tubman escaped alone, making her way on foot at night. During the day, she hid and slept. She traveled through Delaware to Pennsylvania, where slavery had been gradually outlawed but did not end completely until 1847. Tubman found work in Philadelphia, saved money, and returned to Maryland to guide family members and friends through the Underground Railroad, a secret network of former slaves, free blacks, and whites who helped escaped slaves to freedom in Canada (see also Sugar Grove Underground Railroad Convention). With the aid of then-Senator William H. Seward (later U.S. secretary of state), she bought a home in Auburn, New York. In one of her most daring escape plans, she arranged for a wagon driver to bring her elderly parents to Auburn to live with her.

Between 1849 and 1860, Tubman, known as the "Moses of Her People," may have freed up to 300 slaves, although accounts vary on the actual number of escapees. Regardless, none of the slaves were lost, primarily due to the many techniques Tubman used to prevent detection, including threatening to kill anyone who wanted to retreat, tranquilizing babies so they would not cry, and constantly urging and prodding her charges to persevere.

During the Civil War, Tubman nursed many of the wounded and also served as a spy for the Union. After the war, she married a former Union soldier, Nelson Davis, but kept the surname Tubman. Her work during the late 1800s included support for women's rights and numerous fund-raising efforts to establish schools for newly freed black children and to support elderly and poor African Americans. She spent her last two years in the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, which she established. She died there in 1913.

Creation of the Observance

In 1990 the 101st Congress passed Public Law 252 that designated March 10 as the day to commemorate Harriet Tubman's life and deeds. In 2001 the state of Maryland marked March 10 to honor Tubman, and in 2003, the state legislature in New York passed a law making the Harriet Tubman Day of Commemoration official statewide. Other states and local communities also have established the day in tribute to Tubman.

Over the years, Harriet Tubman has been highly praised and widely honored for her heroism. Some other tributes include a World War II ship named for her, the designation of her home as a historic landmark in 1974, and a commemorative postage stamp with her image issued in 1978.


Harriet Tubman Day is marked in a variety of ways across the United States. In Auburn, New York, a commemoration may include a tour through the historic Harriet Tubman Home and a reenactment of her life. In addition, the Home hosts an annual Tubman Pilgrimage over Memorial Day weekend.

The Harriet Tubman Organization, formed in 1989, conducts tours in Dorchester County, Maryland, where Tubman was born. On her commemorative day, as at other times of the year, a tour may include a visit to the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden in Cambridge and a stop at a roadside marker near the farm where she was raised. Walking tours guide visitors through the fields where Tubman worked while a slave.

In Houston, Texas, a re-enactor performed "The Resurrection of Harriet Tubman" on Harriet Tubman Day in 2005. The performance took place at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum (see also Buffalo Soldiers Commemorations).

"I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person," Harriet Tubman recalled, after she safely reached Pennsylvania and freedom. "There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven."

- Harriet Tubman, in Sarah H. Bradford's Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People.

Contacts and Web Sites

Dorchester County Tourism Department 2 Rose Hill Place Cambridge, MD 21613 410-228-1000 or 800-522-TOUR (8687)

Harriet Tubman Historical Society P.O. Box 832127 Stone Mountain, GA 30083

Harriet Tubman Home 180 South St. Auburn, NY 13201 315-252-2081

Harriet Tubman Organization 424 Race St. P.O. Box 1164 Cambridge, MD 21613 410-228-0401

Further Reading

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. "Harriet Tubman's Private War: Iconic Freedom Fighter Waged Unremitting Struggle Against the Slave System." Ebony, March 2005. Bentley, Judith. Harriet Tubman. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. (young adult) Bradford, Sarah H. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses, Printer, 1869. Cannon, Angie. "Secret Paths to Freedom." Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 2002. Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004. ---. "On the Road to Harriet Tubman: She Has Become One of the Most Famous of All American Women, But to the Biographer She Is a Tantalizingly Elusive Quarry." American Heritage, June-July 2004.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
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