Following Harriet Tubman’s Legacy along Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Mar 01, 2017 08:25AM
By Vanessa Orr
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she was known, was born into slavery in 1822 in Dorchester County, MD. Twenty-seven years later, she fled enslavement by tapping into the Underground Railroad, traveling from Maryland through Delaware to Philadelphia. She then returned 12 more times to her home state, walking more than 100 miles each way to take 70 more enslaved people to freedom and becoming known as “the Moses of her people.”
Better known today as Harriet Tubman, this woman’s story is truly awe-inspiring. While I’d heard of Tubman’s exploits before, it wasn’t until I visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore that I got a firsthand look at her life, and learned how much more she’s contributed to American history as an abolitionist, Civil War spy, nurse, suffragist and humanitarian.
One of the best ways to get to know Tubman’s story is to visit the Tubman Museum & Educational Center, located in downtown Cambridge, MD. Located just a few miles from where Tubman grew up, the museum’s tour starts with a 20-minute video explaining Tubman’s life—which included being hired out as a domestic servant at 6 years old. What’s amazing when you look at all that she accomplished is that as a young girl, she was nearly killed by an iron weight that was thrown at a runaway slave and hit her instead, cracking her skull and resulting in seizures, lapses in consciousness and visions that she suffered from for the rest of her life.
The19th-century Bucktown Village Store where this incident occurred still stands, looking much as it did in Harriet’s time, with tins of food, duck decoys, and mixing bowls and ladles sitting among the shelves under an “In God We Trust” sign. One of the 36 sites along the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, the store is open to visitors ‘by chance’ or by appointment, and is well worth the stop.
While in the area, you’ll want to visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, which opened this March. This $21 million tribute to Tubman includes her entire history, from her start as the fifth of nine children born into slavery in Maryland to her establishment of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which provided nursing and respite care for aging African Americans on her land in Auburn, NY.
You can’t help but be moved by the stories of those who were enslaved—I think the tale that most tugged at my heart was that of Harriet and her brothers, who hid in a corn crib before they escaped on Christmas Day in 1854. They had to leave without ever telling their mother that they were going so that she did not give their secret away; their father, who brought them food and accompanied them for part of their journey, wore a blindfold so that, if asked, he could honestly say that he hadn’t seen his children.
Visitors enter the building on the south end and walk through a dark, closed-in hallway that opens into a brightly lit, barnlike room with massive windows that showcase the view north. Approximately 5,000 square feet of exhibition space captures the times in which Tubman lived, including exhibits on her home and family, the free and enslaved communities, her work and faith, and slavery on the Eastern Shore. As I passed each exhibit, my respect for Tubman grew—instead of resting on our her laurels as a leader of the Underground Railroad, she instead became a Union spy during the Civil War, and also fought for women’s rights as a suffragist.
What’s really unique to the visitor center is that it sits on 17 acres beside the undeveloped Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which still looks as it did in Tubman’s day. Looking out over the fields, marshes and forests, it’s daunting to think of how she and her passengers must have felt as they hid from slavecatchers and dogs; it also helps to explain why Tubman carried a small pistol with her, not only for protection but to encourage those who would turn back and endanger the others to continue on.
Speaking of the refuge, I highly recommend seeing it in the best way—on the water. Plan to rent a kayak within the refuge from Blackwater Paddle & Pedal, and take in the unspoiled landscapes of Dorchester County in this area that’s known as the ‘Everglades of Maryland.’ On my afternoon paddle, I got to see herons and hawks; the refuge is also home to bald eagles and golden eagles, as well as osprey and other wildlife. While this is not an ‘official’ stop on most Harriet Tubman tours, I personally found it to be a wonderful way to decompress from my immersion into Tubman’s life and the sad history of slavery in our country.
There are many more stops along the byway that are