Famous Letters To, From, and About Harriet Tubman

by Koa Makai
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Harriet Tubman was a remarkable woman who risked life and limb to free hundreds of fellow African-Americans from slavery. She earned little praise and recognition during her life on earth, due in large part to the fact that she was illiterate and so, unlike other prominent abolitionists, could not put her thoughts and feelings into words. Even so, the story of her courage inspired many others who wrote directly to her, wrote to others about her, and quoted her words in their own notable letters. Following is a sample of some of the most famous letters to, from, and about Harriet Tubman.

Letter from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman asked a friend to help her write to prominent African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass with the request that he provide a word of commendation for a book about Harriet Tubman’s life. In response, Frederick Douglass told Harriet that “I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me”. He went on to point out the fact that while he received accolades and encouragement for his work, Harriet Tubman’s work was done in “a private way”, with only “the midnight sky and the silent stars” bearing witness to her difficult, dangerous work. He concluded his letter by stating that he considered it to be “a great privilege to bear testimony” to Harriet Tubman’s character, noting that he regarded her as being “in every way truthful and trustworthy.”

Letter About Harriet Tubman from Thomas Garrett to a Friend

Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett knew Harriet Tubman well; however, as he sadly explains in one of his famous letters to a friend, he was unable to keep a written recollection of many of his experiences with her as he lived in a slave state and the possession of such a collection of writings could have put him in grave danger. Even so, his letter explains the anguish he felt as he worried about her safety, his amazement at Harriet Tubman’s ability to hear the voice of God, and Harriet Tubman’s kindness and humility. He also recounts Harriet Tubman’s daring trip to bring her parents to freedom and concludes the letter by explaining that he gave Harriet Tubman the money she needed to take her parents to Canada, where they would be safe from bounty hunters roaming the north in search of escaped slaves that could be returned to their owners in the south.

Letter from Lydia Maria Child to President Abraham Lincoln

Noted author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, at a time when the war was not going in the North’s favour. She included, in her letter, Harriet Tubman’s blunt assessment of what needed to be done to win the war. “God won’t let Master Lincoln beat the South until he does the right thing,” Harriet Tubman had said in noting that the President had not freed the slaves. The letter includes Harriet Tubman’s comparison of slavery to a snake that keeps striking and killing people even as the doctor attends to a growing number of victims, simply because no one will kill the snake. The following year, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Famous letters offer insight into what people thought and felt in years gone by. Unlike historical texts, these letters capture strong feelings of love, hate, admiration, loathing, and more, while at the same time inspiring others to follow the examples of great people of the past in order to bring about positive change in the world today.

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