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        Harriet Tubman | Abolition Activist

        Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a so-called “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, leading or assisting more than 300 enslaved people to freedom, despite great personal risk. After aiding the Union Army as a spy during the Civil War, she continued a life of service, dedicated to formerly enslaved people. In this lesson, by examining two primary sources and watching a short video, students will become familiar with the remarkable bravery and extraordinary accomplishments of the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will learn about Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary courage in the face of enormous risks. After watching a biographical video, they will examine a photograph of Tubman and read a letter written to her by Frederick Douglass. The lesson culminates with students comparing Harriet Tubman to modern-day women and girls who have similarly confronted huge risks to help others.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Liberate - to free
        • Bounty - a monetary reward offered for a person’s capture


        Underground Railroad - An informal system of escape routes and safe houses operated by both free African Americans and white abolitionists to assist people fleeing enslavement. The Underground Railroad developed during the decades before the Civil War and is credited with rescuing thousands of people living in slavery, helping them to reach either free states or Canada. Most Underground Railroad activity took place on the states near the border between North and South. Organizers and participants used railroad terminology: “conductors” were people who led the fugitives to “station houses” staffed by “station masters”. All such activity was illegal, thus both those fleeing enslavement and those offering assistance were taking substantial risks. 

        Background on Harriet Tubman | Abolition Activist

        Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, sometime between 1820 and 1825. Her original name was Araminta Harriet Ross. Of her eight brothers and sisters, three were sold to another plantation. 

        An enslaved person’s life was often brutal and Harriet was physically abused many times. Once, in her teens, she refused to help an angry overseer subdue a fellow slave. The overseer threw a two-pound weight, hitting Harriet in the head. She never fully recovered from the blow, which resulted in lifelong episodes of losing consciousness. 

        In her mid-twenties, Harriet married a free black man named John Tubman. Afraid of being sold, she resolved to run away with her two brothers in 1849, but her husband refused to go. After a failed attempt, she escaped alone and used stars in the night sky to navigate, following the North Star to Pennsylvania, a free state.

        “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” Tubman said. “There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

        Tubman found work, saved her money, and returned to Maryland to help her sister and her sister's two children to freedom. Soon after, she made another trip to rescue her brother and two others. On a third trip, Tubman tried to convince her husband to join her, only to find he had remarried. She helped others to escape from slavery to freedom instead.

        Tubman made the dangerous round-trip journey 19 times. She carried a pistol to both protect the fugitive slaves and threaten them if they slowed down or tried to turn back, telling them, "You'll be free or die." There was a $40,000 bounty for Tubman’s capture, but she didn’t let that stop her.

        During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a cook and nurse, and also became a spy for the Union Army. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, Tubman masterfully guided a gunboat up the Combahee River in South Carolina, destroying an ammunition depot and liberating more than 700 people from slavery without losing a single Union soldier. 

        In early 1859, Tubman purchased a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York. Her land became a haven for black war orphans and elderly people who had formerly been enslaved. Nearing fifty, Tubman married a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis, many years younger than herself, and the couple adopted a baby girl named Gertie.

        When she died in 1913, Tubman was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, with military honors. Today, schools bear her name, and she is honored at the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland. In 2014, President Barack Obama established national historical parks at Tubman's former home in Central New York and along the shores of Maryland. In 2016, the US Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman’s likeness would be printed on the $20 bill.

        “Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” Tubman said. “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        Ask students: 

        • Did you ever take a risk to help another person? Has another person ever taken a risk to help you?
        • Introduce Harriet Tubman:
          Harriet Tubman risked her life on multiple occasions in order to free herself, and eventually hundreds of others, from slavery. Also a Civil War heroine, she spent her long life serving and protecting other people. 

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the Video 

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        What do you think motivated Harriet Tubman to return to the South numerous times to help people escape enslavement? What were some of the many risks she faced when making these journeys?

        Most leaders of the abolitionist movement engaged in speaking, writing, petition signing, and other forms of organizing, informing, and motivating others to try to end slavery altogether. In what ways can Harriet Tubman also be considered an abolitionist?

        Why do you think that Harriet Tubman was an effective spy during the Civil War?  

        Examining Primary Sources 

        Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the image to the right. This photograph is from the collection of the Library of Congress. The photographer was H.B. Lindsley, however, the date of the photograph is unknown; it is estimated to have been taken between 1860 and 1875


        1. Carefully examine Tubman’s clothing, the furniture, and the items piled on the chair next to her. Why might she have left her coat and hat in view of the camera? What do you think was the purpose of the photograph?
        2. We do not know the date of this photograph. It is estimated to have been taken as early as 1860 which was prior to the Civil War and when Tubman was 39 years old, or as late as 1875, ten years after the Civil War when Tubman was 54. Do you think it is from earlier or later in the time range? On what are you basing your hypothesis?
        3. Notice that Tubman is labeled here as a “nurse, spy and scout”. If you were labeling a photograph of Tubman, what three nouns would you use to sum up her life’s work?
        Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)

        Students will read and analyze a letter written to Harriet Tubman by Frederick Douglass in 1868, shortly before the publication of Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, based on interviews with Tubman and written by author Sarah H. Bradford. Tubman, who had met Douglass through common abolitionist friends, requested a written endorsement from him before the publication of the second volume of her biography. In 1886, Bradford’s Harriet, The Moses of Her People was published. Douglass’s letter, along with testimonials from other prominent people, appears in the second book’s appendix.  

        Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]



        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Harriet Tubman took many huge risks before and during the Civil War; she also helped large numbers of people. Create a Venn Diagram, poster, or graphic organizer comparing Harriet Tubman to a contemporary woman who has taken risks and helped many people. 

        Possibilities include:

        • Malala Yousafzai - Pakistani advocate for female education who survived an assassination attempt
        • Aung San Suu Kyi - Burmese leader who spent years under house arrest for speaking out for democracy
        • Mae Jemison - First African American female astronaut in space
        • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Liberian president who had earlier been exiled and imprisoned for opposing oppressive governments in her country


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