January has come and gone and February is now upon us. With that comes heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, woodland animals predicting weather and a ton of history packed into the year’s shortest month.
This week in history, we will mark the start of Black History Month with the story of an American legend, and later hear of the peculiar origins of this Tuesday’s holiday, so let’s dive in.
On Feb. 1, 1978, 43 years ago, Harriet Tubman became the first African American woman to be depicted on a United States postage stamp.
Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, the abolitionist and Civil War veteran escaped from her slavemaster’s plantation in 1849. Her story became legend as she not only escaped captivity herself, but went back across the Mason-Dixon line to help more slaves reach freedom. Tubman is said to have freed hundreds of slaves as the “Conductor” of the Underground Railroad, making at least 19 dangerous trips into the slave-holding South to help slaves reach the Northern U.S. and Canada. Tubman became infamous amongst plantation-owning Southerners who put a $40,000 ($1.3 million in 2021) bounty on her head, dead or alive. Despite their efforts, Tubman was never caught, nor did she ever “lose a passenger.”
During the Civil War, she led a Black regiment of Union forces in the raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, freeing more than 700 slaves. Despite this, Tubman was denied a military pension for approximately 35 years after the Civil War’s conclusion.
Even after the Emancipation Proclamation had been decreed, Tubman continued to be an ardent activist and humanitarian, joining the ranks of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the fight for women’s suffrage, and caring for the needy at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. At the time of her death, Tubman had little money to her name and was largely forgotten by the American people.
Tubman’s ascension to the postage stamp is one of the main reasons why her name is legendary to this day, as the Black Heritage Series of the U.S. Post Office sought to recognize the stories of Black Americans revived during the Civil Rights Movement.
In 2016, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, as Jackson’s legacy is largely characterized by racist policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Under the Trump administration, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin delayed the change, saying “We’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.” Last month, however, the Biden administration announced its intention to enact the switch in the coming months.
On Feb. 2, 1887, 134 years ago, the first Groundhog Day was celebrated in Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
The exact origins of Groundhog Day are disputed, but many historians argue that it dates back to the ancient Christian holiday of Candlemas. Falling exactly 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas observes the date at which the Virgin Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. Candlemas traditions dictate that candles would be distributed to members of the community to light and warm homes through the remainder of winter.
Various superstitions developed around the holiday, however, with Feb. 2 being an indicator for how much longer the winter season would last. In southern Europe, winter would end when the candles given by the Church would burn out. In northern Europe and the British Isles, a fair weather day on Feb. 2 meant that winter was far from over, while a cold and rainy day would mean that the worst of winter was over.
Germans, on the other hand, used hedgehogs as their weather predictors, and since German immigrants poured into rural Pennsylvania during the 1700s and 1800s, the tradition came with them, switching from a hedgehog to a groundhog, as groundhogs are native to the region.
While the holiday was celebrated in the U.S. for decades before 1887, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club officially declared that Punxsutawney Phil would be the one true weather-predicting marmot of the United States, and since then, Americans look to the little town of Punxsutawney to see if there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring.
While festivities have been pushed online this Groundhog Day, let’s hope this year’s celebration will give everyone some much needed hope of warmer weather and better days in the coming weeks.