Why Don’t More People Know Harriet Tubman Was Disabled?

Against a background of a cloudy sky and brick building is the head of a statue of Harriet Tubman, taken from a lower angle so that the statue exudes strength and power.
Image: Heidi Besen/Shutterstock

America tends to minimize or alter the contributions of Black people in its history. George Washington Carver didn’t invent peanut butter; he was a prominent scientist that changed the way farmers work with crops. Martin Luther King Jr. is hailed as an advocate for peace and integration. Still, he became more radicalized right before he was assassinated, regretting integration without addressing the problems of class in America. And one of America’s most hailed Black heroes is Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s legacy has recently come into the picture because the Biden administration announced earlier this year plans to move forward with putting her face on the $20 bill. She was both a revered and reviled abolitionist and successful conductor of the Underground Railroad, concluding at least 13 trips before she died. One key point that is all too often left out of Tubman’s narrative is that she was disabled. 

Author Catherine Clinton, who wrote the biography, “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom,” told the New York Times, “I encountered people who were not sure if she was even a real person, or if she was a figure from folklore.” The version of Tubman most people know can be found in children’s books. But she was not a fragile older woman as she led slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman was, frankly, a badass. She was a young woman with a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. Once a slave chose to go on the journey with her, she warned them that they must “go on or die” to ensure the safety of other passengers. She never lost a single one. Following Tubman’s journeys on the underground railroad, she served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of Tubman’s story is that she often experienced seizures and “sleeping spells” after a slave master hit her with a two-pound weight as a teenager. It’s unfortunate that so many parts of Tubman’s legacy have been twisted to become more palatable. The erasure of disabled status from accomplished figures in American history happens all too often. Does the stereotype of the strong Black woman fail once it’s confirmed that she was disabled? Black women are held to an extremely high standard in our society, expected to be exceptional. We can indeed be both excellent and disabled. To exclude one is to deny reality. 

When I think about my own life, part of the reason I’ve become so vocal about being disabled is so that it’s not left out of my legacy. In 2018, I was hospitalized for eight days after I had three seizures. It turned out I had cerebral sinus thrombosis; a blood clot had formed in my brain behind my left eye. My life changed forever. Even after being prescribed blood thinners for six months, my neurologist told me that the clot would probably never completely dissolve. I will most likely be on seizure medication for the rest of my life, and I am expected to continue to check in with a neurologist. 

But I am a Black disabled woman living a full life that includes loving friends and family, a comprehensive education, a fiery pursuit of a successful career, and trying my hardest to make sure I leave a little good in this world before I’m gone. Many contributions from disabled Black, Indigenous and other people of color are erased from history altogether. I will not let this happen to Tubman’s legacy, or to my own.

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Olivia Harden is a writer based out of Southern California. She graduated from Chapman University with a B.A. in journalism in 2019. During her tumultuous time at the predominantly-white institution, Olivia discovered her passion for writing about social justice issues. She uses her experiences as a Black, queer woman to guide her storytelling as well as bringing attention to others whose voices need to be heard.

2 responses to “Why Don’t More People Know Harriet Tubman Was Disabled?

  1. I work on a county developmental disabilities board and created a slide show of historical and present day Black people with IDDD. She is included in that show on the department’s website. Hopefully this will inform more people.

  2. Thank you so much for telling the story of Harriet Tubman’s brain injury. I remember writing a book report about her when I was an elementary student and thinking how brave she was then (and of course, there was no mention of her injury). However, as an adult who has a greater understanding of the enormity of the risks she took for her beliefs and to save the lives of others, I admire her even more. As a person who sustained my own brain injury three years ago, I believe it is important to educate others about brain injuries whenever an opportunity arises. Again, thank you for using your voice to educate others about this woman who helped so many people arrive safely to freedom while she lived with the after effects of a traumatic brain injury.

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