Deanna Mitchell is the current superintendent of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. A native of Maryland, she has been dedicated to ensuring that the rich history of the Eastern Shore is not forgotten, and that the African American heritage of the region is not only recorded, but also cherished.
At this time, in 2020, everyone should know of the legacy, not just of Harriet Tubman, but of those brave men and women from this region who came before her, and those who came after her, who paved the way for so many to understand the significance of her legacy as well as the historical and cultural resources of this region. In addition, I do hope that through our efforts here at the historical park, we are able to dispel any misconception of what the Underground Railroad actually was. Some folks believe that it was truly a railroad with a train that runaway slaves boarded to gain their freedom. We emphasize the fact that it was a very sophisticated network of pathways and routes followed by enslaved people mostly on foot, where they received short-term shelter, food, clothing, and directions along the way as they sought freedom. Waterways along the Chesapeake Bay proved to be helpful escape routes along the Underground Railroad.
You really can get a feel for what the Eastern Shore meant to the Indigenous Peoples who inhabited these lands long before Europeans settled here, and even those individuals that came over on slave ships from Africa beginning in 1619. The rich history of African American heritage can be experienced through the efforts of a number of state and regional sources who have come together in partnerships to preserve and protect this heritage for generations to come. The National Park Service, Maryland State Parks, tourism offices for Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties, privately-owned historic sites, the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that stretches from Maryland to Pennsylvania, and a number of fine universities and non-profit organizations all provide for connection of the African American heritage to this region. Descendants of slaves, abolitionists, and civil rights activists – some who are still alive today – help to contribute to the lasting impact of this rich heritage. One key connection to the African American legacy were the strong, free, Black communities and churches, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by African Americans and still in existence today.
Well, you know, I came to the National Park Service in 2005. I worked for a number of other agencies prior to that, but there is something special about the National Park Service. I have visited national parks long before becoming an employee in the National Park Service, and there's really nothing like that experience, whether it be in a natural park, or in a cultural park such as the one that we're in right now: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, MD. Our mission in the National Park Service is to protect and preserve these wonderful places that have been protected through legislation, and as an African American in that role, I have embraced the challenge and find it to be rewarding. I have found that the National Park Service is diverse and inclusive in many aspects of its operations, and as an African American, I was afforded the opportunity to seek and achieve the level of superintendency. This achievement doesn’t mean that I'm sitting, you know, on top of a mountain, but that my role and responsibility is entrusted to the organization, the resource, the staff, and the public. As an African-American woman achieving this level of responsibility…not only is it awesome…but more importantly an example for many other people of color, young adults, and women to never give up on your goals and dreams.
Never be afraid. Never be afraid to try something that you feel is outside your comfort zone. When you limit yourself and you say "I think this is where I need to be,” you’re only going to be as successful as you can within those boundaries. You should never just “think” but “know” what you want to achieve. Why not take a chance? Why not broaden your horizons? That is the only way you can learn truly about yourself and what is in your heart as well as learn from others. Yes, there will be roadblocks in front of you no matter what you strive for in life, but what really counts is your fortitude in proving yourself and jumping over or going around those roadblocks to get to the other side. Just take that chance.
I believe my most special place on the Chesapeake Bay is where the Bay intersects with the lower basin or mouth of the Susquehanna River – my hometown where I was born and raised, Havre de Grace, MD. In this small harbor town – translated from French to mean “harbor of grace,” – I literally grew up on the water. For me, no matter where I have lived throughout my life, I am always drawn to the "Beauty of the Bay.” I feel very fortunate to have come full circle to be living back in Maryland, and also for the opportunity to further the rich legacy of one of our nation's true heroes, Harriet Tubman.
For the full interview, please watch below.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic and State Park is located in Dorchester Country near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. This park commemorates the life of a Harriet Tubman, true American hero and historical icon.
A drive along the 125 mile Underground Railroad Scenic Byway highlights the life of Harriet Tubman and many historic places connected with her in Chesapeake Bay country.