In Harriet’s Footsteps


Well, sort of.

We know that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Dorchester County, MD in 1849 at the age of 27; she later returned to lead many more enslaved people out of bondage.

What we often don’t know is exactly where things happened because these were enslaved people we’re talking about. Even Frederick Douglass’s exact birthplace near Easton, MD is unknown.

This is good to know before you follow the Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Whether the Eastern Shore counties are truly trying to atone for the sin of slavery in their parts, or whether the name of Harriet Tubman is a tourist draw, it is sobering to be in the area where the fearless little woman was such a thorn in the white enslavers’ sides.

The Harriet Tubman National Park area is not a sop to tourism. It has been in the works for many years and was supposed to have been finished by now. The latest projected opening date is spring 2017.

My sister and I did most of the 125-mile Byway, which makes a huge circle unless you go to the end near the Delaware border. I had downloaded and put onto CD the free audio guide, which much enhanced the experience. The narrator and actors set the mood wonderfully, even though many of the stops on the Byway were guesstimates of where something might have happened or were “something like” something to do with Harriet Tubman.

We stayed in Cambridge, where the Byway begins, and went first to the Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum is a grass-roots project that is in need of money to help expand the exhibits and its hours (12 to 3 pm). Even so, the tiny storefront has a very good video about Harriet Tubman, murals of her painted by a descendant,, a large collection of children’s books about her, and memorabilia (yes, I got the T-shirt).


During the drive, we saw a one-room schoolhouse, the Stanley Institute, that had been built by black parents after the Civil War for their children and that was used until as late as the 1960s, when Maryland’s schools were desegregated.

We saw Parsons Creek, originally a canal built by enslaved people for Joseph Stewart to float lumber out to the bay to ships. Lumbering was a major business here. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, worked for Stewart and so did Harriet. It is said that she learned her outdoor and navigational skills during this time. It is also possibly how she became so strong, as she had been a frail child.

We saw the Tuckahoe Neck Quaker meetinghouse, a center of Underground Railroad activity in Caroline County.

We saw the site of another of Harriet’s enslavers, Edward Brodess, in the town of Bucktown. Though she had several enslavers through the years, it was from Brodess’s farm that she escaped.

We saw the restored Bucktown Village Store, at which Harriet got caught in the crossfire and was hit in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man was throwing at his slave. It has been recorded that after this time, Harriet began having visions. This hearkens back to the experience of Julian of Norwich, who began having visions and messages from God after a serious illness.

We saw a restored cabin built by a free black man, James Webb. His enslaved wife and four children were allowed to live here with him. Basically one room with a sleeping loft, it must have seemed like a castle at the time to Mrs. Webb.

wmstillWe were very disappointed not to be able to see the William Still Family Interpretive Center, supposedly located at a 4H Park in Denton, MD. We drove and walked around the 4H Park but couldn’t even find a sign referring to William Still. His name comes up often in the Underground Railroad literature. A free black man, he lived in Philadelphia and was a major conductor on the railroad. His meticulous records helped him publish The Underground Railroad in 1871. That detailed work of the more than 1,000 escapees who passed through his station includes firsthand narratives and is still helping scholars’ research today.

A most poignant note about Mr. Still is that in 1850 his own lost brother, Peter, was one of the men he was assisting. Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama years before.

Despite the disappointments, though, I’m so glad to have been able to follow Harriet Tubman’s footsteps and will certainly be returning when the National Park in her honor opens. I can’t even express how much I admire this woman, who went on to spy for the Union Army, be involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and opened her home to elderly blacks in Auburn, NY. It seems fitting to end with her own words:

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”


The Moral Universe – The Moses of Her People


I’m often a few days late in remembering to change my calendar. Who needs a calendar these days? The computer, the cell phone – everywhere you look reminds you what day it is. Calendars are really for the pictures these days.

harriet tubmanThe one on my refrigerator at home features famous African-Americans. On July 5, when I took all the magnets off and lifted the page, my heart swelled when I saw the picture of Harriet Tubman. After spending a rainy Fourth of July reading, napping, and buying homemade ice cream at the Farmer’s Market, here was my real Independence Day celebration! Who better to symbolize independence than this small woman, often called “The General” by her friends, and “the Moses of her People,” who found her way to freedom and then returned to the South to help at least 300 other slaves find theirs?


I’ve read about Harriet Tubman in many books new and old, but seeing her picture sent me back to the bookshelf to remind myself of her particulars. Charles L. Blockson’s 1987 book Underground Railroad gathers first-hand accounts of escaped slaves from interviews, biographies, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of the day. Blockson himself is the great-grandson of an escaped slave.

Born Araminta Ross in 1820 or 1821 in Maryland, Harriet was renamed after her mother. Unusually, her family were not separated and lived together on the Brodas plantation in Bucktown. Physically strong despite her size, Harriet said in interviews that she was often hired out to plow and drive oxen, which must certainly have helped both her muscular strength and her determined character.

Harriet was known to have been deeply religious and to have had visions. (I have not yet found out whether these began before or after she was hit in the head by a heavy weight that missed the slave it was thrown at. James McBride uses a similar incident in his beautiful book about Maryland slaves, Song Yet Sung.) She trusted implicitly in God’s guidance, saying she was even given step-by-step divine instructions in perilous situations. She never claimed credit for herself for her heroic deeds; all the credit belonged to God.

When she made her break for freedom in 1849, Harriet had been married for five years to a free black named John Tubman. With the help of the Underground Railroad, she made it to Philadelphia where she met William Still. A black agent on the Railroad, Still wrote the first book about the U.G.R.R., as he called it.

In Philadelphia, Harriet worked as a domestic to make money to go back to Maryland and collect her parents. She eventually did so, bringing them all the way through to Canada. She tried to get her husband to come North, but he had become involved with another woman and she cut him loose.
Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker abolitionist and conductor on the Railroad, wrote to Sarah Bradford, Harriet’s first biographer, that no one Harriet escorted north was ever arrested or returned to slavery to his knowledge. He also mentions that she had an uncanny knack of coming to him for money for supplies at the exact time he had received money to be given to her, with no communication between them. The Anti-Slavery Society of Edinburgh was one of her supporters.

Harriet’s world was greatly enlarged by her activity, and Frederick Douglass and John Brown were among her colleagues and friends. In later years, she became involved with Susan B. Anthony and other of the early suffragettes.

Both Mr. Blockson’s book, and Scott Christiansen’s book, Freeing Charlie, relate an incident in the escape of a slave named Charles Nalle. He had been taken to Troy, New York, one of the hubs of the Railroad, when he was spotted by fugitive slave hunters. No one seems to know how it was that Harriet happened to be in Troy that day or even know about Nalle, but she suddenly appeared and manacled herself to him, literally pulling him out of the hands of the police.

Harriet Tubman made about 19 trips back to Maryland, trips that could have ended in her death. But her belief in her God and her mission delivered her to the ripe old age of 93. When my interest in anti-slavery efforts became renewed and I was contemplating writing this blog, I tried talking about her at my workplace at lunchtime. The only comment I received was something to the effect that she was “one ugly woman.”

What I saw when I turned the calendar page the other day was a beauty that comes from great faith, from fearlessness and from a righteousness that is transcendent. Harriet Tubman is, to me, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.