In Harriet’s Footsteps

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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).

one-room-schoolhouse

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.”

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