Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.
When the day arrives that a woman's image adorns Federal Reserve currency for the first time, it might well be that of Harriet Tubman. She's reportedly on the short list. It may, however, be a dubious honor to appear on something that declines so regularly in value. Without a doubt, this woman would impart more esteem to the bill than the bill would to her. Her value is far more solid and enduring.
Slavery was once ubiquitous in the world -- and even intellectually respectable. That began to change in the late 18th century, first in Britain, which ended its slave trade in 1807 and liberated the enslaved throughout its jurisdiction in 1834. Before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America in 1865, American blacks risked everything attempting to escape from their masters, who sometimes pursued them all the way to the Canadian border. Tubman, herself a fugitive slave, became the most renowned "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, a network of trails for escapees from the antebellum South to the North. As many as 100,000 slaves risked life and limb traveling its routes. It was the most dangerous "railroad" in the world.
Born Araminta Harriet Ross in 1820 in Maryland, Tubman survived the brutalities of bondage for 29 years. Three of her sisters had been sold to distant plantation owners. She herself carried scars for her entire life from frequent whippings. Once, when she refused to restrain a runaway slave, she was bashed in the head with a two-pound weight, causing lifelong pain, migraines, and "buzzing" in her ears. She bolted for freedom in 1849, making her way to the neighboring free state of Pennsylvania and its city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.
"I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming," she later wrote.
I was free; but there was no one t...