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After a decades-long struggle, supporters say Harriet Tubman finally is getting her due from the state of Maryland next year, a century after her death.

A state park and visitors center to illuminate the life of Tubman — who, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, returned as many as 13 times to the Eastern Shore and helped at least 70 slaves escape — is scheduled to open outside Cambridge.

The effort to put together the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Byway, which is meant to explore the history of the Dorchester County native who seized her own freedom in 1849, began with a group of dedicated Tubman admirers.

Like many others who have read about Tubman’s life, they were moved by how she risked her freedom time and again over more than a decade to guide slaves to liberty.

As a conductor, she made use of the now legendary Underground Railroad, a secret network for help and places where runaway slaves could hide on their journey north to freedom.

“Some agreed it was a great story, but [some] really didn’t want to talk about it,” said Donald Pinder, president of the 20-plus-member Harriet Tubman Organization, which began as the Harriet Tubman Association in 1983.

Perhaps some whose ancestors might have been slaveholders were embarrassed by such a heroic figure, whose deeds stand as an indictment of the region’s past, he said.

Patricia Ross Hawkins said she did not learn that her family traces its origins back to Tubman’s parents, Ben Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green, until the 1980s, when her grandfather Owen Ross told her while she was working on a related college assignment.

Hawkins said her grandfather, who faced segregation and racism, loved his family, but expected members to be modest and do something for the community in their own way.

It was the persistence of the Harriet Tubman Organization, to which Hawkins belongs, that is largely responsible for ensuring that Tubman will get a memorial.

Hawkins and Pinder said they hope that planned park exhibits and information being added now along the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway will teach visitors how one person and a movement like the network that came to be called the Underground Railroad could change people’s lives and thoughts.

“We want people to be able to read the stories and step out into the landscape,” said Camila Clark, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Tourism.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park will encompass about 17 acres south of Cambridge and adjacent to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge remains little changed from the natural world in which Tubman learned navigation and survival skills that helped the “Moses of her people” lose not one “passenger” whom she conducted along the Underground Railroad.

State tourism officials project that the park will draw about 200,000 visitors annually and as much as $20 million in spending to the surrounding area.

The state has committed almost $9 million and the federal government more than $12 million toward the project.

The park will include a 15,000-square-foot building that will house presentations about Tubman and artifacts associated with her life and times, but likely few of her actual possessions because they are scarce, Clark said.

A groundbreaking is expected early next year, she said, and there’s a push for the visitors center to open in the fall 2013.

The park is planned as an anchor set at the midpoint of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which includes more than two dozen sites significant to Tubman and slaves whom she helped escape from, or through, the Eastern Shore. Some sites are waterways that served both as passages to slavery and to freedom in the Chesapeake region.

Clark said an audiotape narrating the tour should be ready early next year.

From Cambridge, the byway stretches west and south through Tubman’s haunts in her native county before turning north near the Choptank River through Caroline County and on toward Sandtown, Del., where crossing the Mason-Dixon Line placed escaping slaves closer to freedom.

Along the way, it stops at the Dorchester County Courthouse, where Tubman’s niece and her two children escaped as they were set to be sold at auction and where Underground Railroad operators were tried and sent to prison.

It also includes the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, run by volunteers from the Harriet Tubman Organization.

The route also notes the Stanley Institute, a one-room schoolhouse used to educate black children in the county as recently as 1962. Near it is the spot where 28 slaves escaped their quarters in 1857 and fled to freedom in Canada.

Highlighted are sites where Tubman, born Araminta Ross, grew up and worked alongside her father, farming, timbering and floating logs and produce down a canal that slaves cut through marsh to Madison Bay — the area where she met her first husband, freeman John Tubman.

The byway then runs east and south by the murky depths and seemingly boundless marsh vistas of the Blackwater and Transquaking rivers on the way to Bucktown Store, at a crossroads less than a mile from Tubman’s childhood home.

At Bucktown Store around 1835 an overseer struck the teenaged Harriet in the head for refusing to help him catch an escapee. The injury was said to have cracked Tubman’s skull and caused her to have seizures, visions and sudden onset sleep episodes for the rest of her life.

Around the corner at Scott’s Chapel, where separate cemeteries were kept for white and black churchgoers, is a burial marker for Polish Mills, the farmer to whom Tubman’s mother and brothers and sisters were hired out.

In Caroline County, the byway marks Faith Community United Methodist Church, where Tubman compatriot the Rev. Samuel Green preached. An Underground Railroad agent himself, Green helped Tubman and others flee to freedom.

Billed as the main stop in the region for travelers on the Underground Railroad is the former home of Jacob and Hannah Leverton, white Quaker abolitionists whose work was cut short when their son was exposed as an agent. They moved to Indiana for their safety.

West along the Choptank River is Poplar Neck, where Tubman’s father, Ben, freed in 1840 through his late master’s will, and Tubman’s mother ran their own piece of the Underground Railroad. It is also where Tubman returned to lead her brothers from slavery on Christmas Day 1854 and to rescue her elderly parents in 1857, when she feared their work as agents would be exposed.

Although the byway goes on to more sites in Caroline, from Poplar Neck the family’s story and home move to Canada, then upstate New York.

After working as a cook, nurse, spy and scout for the Union in South Carolina and Virginia during the Civil War, Tubman married her second husband, Nathan Davis, adopted a daughter and settled in Auburn, N.Y.

There, she farmed, made bricks, worked in the women’s suffrage movement and purchased and ran a home to care for poor, elderly and sick African Americans before she died at age 93.

A proposal before Congress would create the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, incorporating many of the byway sites in Maryland and, in New York, the Tubman Home for the Aged, Tubman’s home and Fort Hill Cemetery, where she is buried.


Additional resources

Key events in Harriet Tubman’s story can be read in a chronology drawn from “Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero — Bound for The Promised Land” by biographer Kate Clifford Larson.

Access the chronology online at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/tubmantimeline.asp

More information about plans for Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park can be found at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/tubman.asp

And more information about the Underground Railroad and stories of slaves who escaped can be found at http://www.mdslavery.net/index.html