This week marks the 95th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and suffrage advocate. Her career has some resonant lessons for contemporary politics.
The Democratic presidential primary has spurred a heated debate about the role of women in leadership, and the role of race in politics. Some pundits have shortsightedly pitted the two issues against one another, asking whether supporters see race or gender as more important.
For some perspective, it might be useful for us to look back at the amazing life of a woman who crossed both racial and gender boundaries under much riskier circumstances more than a hundred years ago.
Tubman was a crusader against both racial injustice and the oppression of women at a time when most blacks were slaves and most women were treated as second-class citizens.
Born a slave in Maryland in about 1819, she was in her 20s when she escaped to the free state of Pennsylvania. But her own individual freedom did not satisfy her.
She traveled back into southern slave states more than a dozen times as a leader of the famed Underground Railroad, a secret route by which slaves, aided by white allies, escaped from bondage.
Tubman was so courageous and determined in her rescue missions that she was nicknamed “the Black Moses.” By the time she was through, she had freed several hundred slaves.
During the Civil War, she was also a spy for the Union Army, traveling into the Confederacy on dangerous reconnaissance missions. In 1863, she helped lead a military raid at Combahee River, S.C.
After the Civil War, she was a staunch advocate of women’s rights and suffrage.
As Frederick Douglass told her: "Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you."
Today, we have an African-American and a woman running for president, and both have defied the odds and the expectations of the traditional roles for African-Americans and women in society and politics. Visionary leadership, Tubman taught us, is about defying expectations.
Her life and her words hold out other messages for today’s political leaders.
As she put it, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” She meant that figuratively and literally.
She stayed focused on her goal despite temptations and distractions that may have taken her off the “freedom road.”
And each of her constituents was equally important as the other: the children, the old people, the injured, even the skeptics who wanted to turn back. They were her people, and her resolve to all of them was unwavering, as was her accountability.
Courage, resolve and accountability: That is what Harriet Tubman teaches us to look for in a leader today.
Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.” She can be reached at email@example.com.