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Harriet Tubman (c.1820-1913), born Araminta Ross, was a runaway slave and abolitionist who guided some 300 fellow runaways to freedom as one of the most famous and successful "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. The so-called Railroad was a secret network of safe houses where slaves were hidden on their journey northward. To facilitate its success, Tubman journeyed perilously back into the South at least a dozen times, and was able to bring her parents and brother to freedom. Tubman was also a prominent antislavery lecturer and a friend of famous abolitionists such as John Brown, who may have told her about his secret plan to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and foment a slave revolt.

During the Civil War, Tubman worked in various capacities for Union forces in coastal South Carolina: she was a spy but also a scout, a cook, and a laundress. She had to apply twice for a federal pension for her Civil War services, and finally received one from Congress (at $20 a month) in the 1890s. After the war, she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent Aged Negroes (a home for poor and elderly blacks), which was supported by several of her former abolitionist colleagues and many citizens in Auburn, New York, where she lived for the rest of her life.

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