Harriet Tubman’s Last Great Humanitarian Act
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After her Underground Railroad days, Tubman never stopped trying to help people.
By Carly Stern
In 1911, Harriet Tubman moved into a home she had never imagined she would need herself: the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes. The famed abolitionist had created the haven to lift up the poor and aging in her community. She hadn’t necessarily planned to spend her own final years there. But after a lifetime of seizures, headaches and narcoleptic attacks as a result of a childhood head trauma, she’d become increasingly frail at nearly 90 years of age.
Tubman, who was born into slavery, is famous for guiding hundreds of slaves to safer ground through the Underground Railroad in the 1800s following her own escape from bondage. But many of her numerous post-Civil War accomplishments to fight for the poor and vulnerable remain obscured. In addition to being an outspoken suffragist and co-founder of the NACW — the National Association of Colored Women — Tubman opened what some historians say was the first nursing home for aging Black people.
Located in Auburn, New York, the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes formally opened in 1908 but had been a project years in the making. She created a place for former slaves to receive housing and health care that would enable them to age in dignity and decency, says Karen V. Hill, president and CEO of Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. “This is the culmination of her life’s work” in freedom, says Kimberly Szewczyk, a park ranger and senior interpretive specialist at the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. The park is in partnership with the Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., which includes the former home for the aged as well as Tubman’s former residence and other buildings key to her story.
Tubman bought her New York home in 1859 from then U.S. Sen. William Seward, famous for acquiring Alaska. Even as the former Union Army scout and nurse pursued nationwide humanitarian work, her doors at home stayed open. She constantly took people in, caring for family members and community members who needed shelter, food, clothing and medical support. At the same time, Tubman battled health struggles of her own. In the late 1890s, she had brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and insisted on not receiving anesthesia (the story goes that she opted to bite down on a bullet instead).
As her body slowed down, Tubman wanted to make sure her caretaking work would last beyond her own lifetime, leading her to open a nursing home for Blacks at a time when White care centers wouldn’t serve them. While America as a whole was focusing on the need for such homes, plus hospitals and schools, they were primarily for the White population, says Szewczyk. “In her elderly years, she’s grappling with her own mortality, and she’s trying to institutionalize her life’s work to carry on after her.”
At an auction, Tubman purchased the 25 acres adjacent to her 7-acre farm. She worked hard to raise funds for a mortgage — renting land, giving talks and organizing fundraisers — but ultimately couldn’t scrape enough together. In 1903, Tubman turned to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for help in getting her vision off the ground. Tubman agreed to deed the property to the church in exchange for them opening the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes that she’d dreamed of.
The home didn’t open for five more years, after conflict arose between Tubman and the church, which wanted to charge a fee to house and care for residents. A mortified Tubman staunchly argued that this place should not be cost-prohibitive to the neediest. But she eventually relented: Patients had to pay $100 for their spots when the facility opened its doors in 1908. People received care in the John Brown Hall, named for another famed abolitionist, where doctors and nurses came once a week to provide free medical assistance.
Many of the logistical details of this operation remain unknown, like exactly how many patients the home served. But additional research has been emerging since the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park was established in 2017.
Though Tubman created the venture for others, she lived her final years there as well. The Civil Rights icon passed away in 1913, sometime after her 90th birthday. Unfortunately, Tubman’s vision didn’t outlive her by much: After she died, the church decided the home would stop accepting new patients, remaining open only until the last patient died in the 1920s. The building fell into disrepair, though the property remained. It was renovated in the 1950s, says Szewczyk, and functions today as a visitor center.
Even so, in what is considered among the first nursing homes for Blacks, Tubman cemented her steadfast conviction that health care is a universal human right, a pillar of equity and a foundational block of upward mobility in America. The elderly will always need care and cannot always be cared for by family members in the home, says Szewczyk. “All of the things that we’re looking [at] today as a society are things that Harriet Tubman was looking at in her time.”