86 pages 2 hours read

Ann Petry

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Nonfiction | Biography | Middle Grade | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a 1955 biography by American author Ann Petry. This book takes the reader on a journey through Harriet Tubman’s life, from her birth to enslaved parents on a Maryland plantation to her death as a free woman in New York in 1913. Tubman is a well-known figure in American history and is best known for her heroic actions as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. After escaping from slavery, she helped over 300 Black Americans flee southern plantations by guiding them through the Underground Railroad network. Petry’s book remains a valuable resource about Tubman’s life and the experiences of enslaved Black Americans in the 19th century. Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad received the ALA Notable Book Award from the American Library Association and was named Outstanding Book by the New York Times. This SuperSummary will reference the Kindle edition of this book.


On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman’s parents, Harriet Greene (“Old Rit”) and Benjamin Ross, are enslaved on Edward Brodas’s plantation. The slaves live in windowless, unfurnished log cabins in a separate “quarter” from the Brodas’s Big House. Old Rit and Benjamin already have several children—some of whom Brodas rents out to nearby plantations—and are increasingly fearful of having their children sold to another plantation. Brodas makes financial ends meet by selling slaves to traders, who permanently separate them from their families and take them to the deep South.

Growing up, Harriet endures the same deprived circumstances as her parents, receiving few clothes and little food to eat. Harriet’s family teaches her to be subservient to white people and fear the overseer who supervises the slaves during the day and the local patrollers who chase and capture runaway slaves. The plantation slaves meet secretly at night and discuss running away to the North and the failed insurrection led by free Black man Denmark Vesey. Old Rit is frightened by these conversations; her great hope for freedom is that Brodas will free her, Benjamin, and their children when he dies.

At age 6, Harriet is considered old enough to begin working, and she is hired out to a local white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cook. Harriet struggles to keep up with weaving, so she is assigned to help Mr. Cook with his trapline for catching animals, which she prefers because it allows her to work outside (33). Harriet falls ill and is brought back to the Brodas plantation. When she recovers, Brodas rents her out to a different family, where she is required to care for a baby and stop him from crying during the night. Her boss Miss Susan insults her and whips her when the baby cries. Harriet runs away, hiding in a pig pen for days. Starving, she returns to Miss Susan, who eventually brings her back to the Brodas plantation, complaining that Harriet is rebellious and unintelligent.

Harriet matures into a young woman, and Brodas rents out her labor to other neighboring plantations, where she works outside cutting wood and in the fields. Even though this work is physically challenging and her employers beat her if she does not work fast enough, Harriet prefers this outside work to being indoors since she feels freer in nature. At this time, Harriet hears rumors of an “underground road” that other enslaved people are using to escape slavery. Harriet also learns of Nat Turner’s violent insurrection against slave holders and his capture and execution.

Harriet intervenes to help a fellow slave avoid punishment from an overseer. The overseer hits her in the head, causing a catastrophic injury that leaves Harriet unconscious for weeks. Many doubt Harriet will survive, but Old Rit nurses her back to health. Brodas tries to sell Harriet but struggles to find a buyer due to her poor condition. Eventually, Harriet learns that she and her brothers will be sold, and she prays for God to kill Brodas. When Brodas falls sick and dies just days later, Harriet is frightened that her prayers may have killed him.

The plantation is inherited by Doctor Thompson, who claims that he will not sell any of the slaves outside of Maryland. However, Harriet knows her actions have compromised her reputation as a trustworthy slave, and she considers running away. However, she worries that her continued brain injury would make her journey unsuccessful since she often has headaches or falls asleep spontaneously. Doctor Thompson hires out Harriet and her father to another plantation owner named John Stewart; Harriet is relieved to work outside again and learn from her father’s deep knowledge of the land.

Harriet becomes engaged to John Tubman, whom she loves deeply. She sews a quilt for them by hand, which she brings to John’s cabin once they are married. John is a free Black man, renewing Harriet’s desire to be free herself. When she confides in John that she wants to run away north with him, he argues that it is a dangerous and stupid idea and threatens to report her if she tries to run away. Harriet becomes frightened and distrustful of John but continues to carefully consider her plan. Harriet tries to run away with two of her brothers, but their plan is foiled when the men are scared of being caught and insist Harriet returns to the plantation with them. One day a local white woman tells Harriet where she lives and offers to help Harriet if she is ever in need. When Harriet learns that Doctor Thompson plans to sell her, she runs away, stopping at the white neighbor’s house and gifting her the quilt to thank her. The woman instructs Harriet to travel to the next safe location, where another family will help her. After many days of traveling at night along the “Underground Railroad” of safe houses, Harriet reaches freedom in Pennsylvania.

Harriet adjusts to her new life as a free woman in Philadelphia, where she networks with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group of anti-slavery activists whose office serves as the final stop on the Underground Railroad. Through this group, Harriet learns that her sister Mary and her children will soon be sold and separated from Mary’s husband, a free man. With help from the Committee, Harriet and her brother-in-law execute a daring but ultimately successful rescue of Mary and her children.

Harriet learns about the new Fugitive Slave Act, which allows slave owners to hire slave catchers to pursue and capture runaway slaves, even in free states. Although they had not parted well, Harriet misses her husband John and returns to Maryland to bring him back with her. Unfortunately, when she arrives, she discovers that he has remarried, and the couple laughs at the idea of John and Harriet running away together. A saddened Harriet rescues several other slaves instead and leads them to Philadelphia. By this time, Harriet has a reputation for her daring missions and is known as “Moses” to the enslaved people of Maryland. Harriet makes frequent trips to Maryland to rescue slaves and lead them from house to house on the now-familiar Underground Railroad route. In 1851 she leads 11 slaves out of Maryland and, despite a stressful trip, they make it to Canada, where they can live without fear of being recaptured. Along the way, the group is aided by famous abolitionists such as the Quaker shoemaker Thomas Garrett and the former slave Frederick Douglass. In St. Catharines, Ontario, Harriet discovers that not only are Black residents free from the Fugitive Slave Act, but Black men can vote, run for office, and even serve on juries. Despite the cold conditions, Harriet grows to love the town and helps her group build a home there. For the next several years, Harriet winters in St. Catharines, working to save money for her spring and autumn trips to Maryland to rescue slaves.

Harriet has vivid dreams about her brothers being sold and prepares to rescue them on yet another journey to Maryland. She meets her brothers and another local couple in Bucktown, where they hide together in the food storage hut for all of Christmas day. Harriet sees her parents and notices how much they have aged, causing her to feel especially sad that she cannot take them with her on the journey north. Harriet retraces her usual route to safely accompany her brothers and the couple out of Maryland and up to Canada.

Harriet continues to take great risks on her regular trips to rescue slaves, acting as a conductor for runaways. Between 1851 and 1857, Harriet guides 11 different missions, all successful. After having bad dreams about her parents, Harriet resolves to bring them to Canada. Harriet arrives in Bucktown by train, disguises herself as an elderly woman, and carries live chickens to blend in with the locals. At night she surprises her parents and steals a horse and wagon from Doctor Thompson to transport them away. Harriet travels with her parents on the roads at night and hides with them in the woods during the day until they cross the state border into Pennsylvania. Harriet manages to get her parents to Canada, but they find the cold intolerable, so she arranges for them to live in a house in Auburn, New York, which she has purchased for them.

Harriet has a strange nightmare about abolitionist John Brown being killed and recognizes him from this dream when she is later introduced to him. He asks for her help in planning a large-scale freeing of slaves, confiding in her that he wants to train and arm runaway slaves so they can effectively revolt against slave owners. Although she is ambivalent about his methods, Harriet agrees. She travels to Boston, where she meets with activist Franklin Sanborn, who encourages her to become a public speaker and share her life stories. Harriet lectures at abolitionist meetings and amazes her audiences with her first-hand account of escaping slavery and helping others do the same. She meets with John again but finds his plan of insurrection very ambitious; she loses contact with him. One day Harriet has a premonition that John is in trouble, and her fears are confirmed when she learns that the authorities have captured him and killed his sons.

Harriet’s desire to free as many people as possible has not diminished, and she continues to give talks and lectures to earn money for this work. While she appreciates her audiences’ interest, she does not listen to their advice to stay out of the South; she continues to travel to Maryland once or twice a year to help enslaved people escape. She can feel the tension rising between the southern and northern states and worries about how and when the question of slavery will be resolved. In one incident, Harriet helps captured fugitive slave Charles Nalle escape from police in Troy, New York.

The Civil War begins, and John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, recommends Harriet to the Union Army, which employs her as a scout, nurse, and spy. Harriet cares for the runaway slaves who are wounded or ill, often with dysentery. In one of her most notable accomplishments, she and Colonel James Montgomery travel up the Combahee River to rescue 750 enslaved women, men, and children from their plantations.

After her war service, Harriet feels somewhat lost at sea. With slavery now abolished, she is unsure how to direct her energies. Harriet becomes involved with the suffrage movement for women and raises funds for educating freed slaves. She also marries a Union veteran named Nelson Davis, who suffers from tuberculosis. She struggles financially, and she is denied any salary or pension from the government for her contributions to the war effort.

Hoping to help, her friend Sarah Hopkins Bradford produces two books that summarize Harriet’s life story, Scenes In the Life of Harriet Tubman and Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, with Harriet receiving the royalties from the sales of the book. (These books became a valuable historical resource about Tubman’s life since Tubman could not read or write herself.) Harriet fills her time growing vegetables on her acreage and selling them door to door, always taking advantage of the opportunity to tell her neighbors stories from her time as an activist and her service in the Union forces. She earns a reputation as a vivid, skilled storyteller who takes great pride in her legendary accomplishments. Now elderly, Harriet donates her house to a local church so it can become a home for older people, including herself. In 1913, Harriet passes away; in 1914, the city of Auburn commemorates her for her “rare courage” (241) and her role as the rescuer of over 300 enslaved people. 

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