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“I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” – Harriet Tubman
If I had the ability to bring one person back from the past and spend time with, it would be Harriet Tubman. History classes touched on the importance of Tubman and the Underground Railroad in rescuing slaves in the mid-1800s, but none of them prepared me for the truly amazing woman I came to know at the Underground Railroad National Historical Park.
Located in Church Creek, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the drive to the park was a very pleasant hour and a half from Annapolis – mainly along US Routes 301N and 50E. Only 11 miles south of Cambridge, the trip took us through lovely, small towns and over serene Chesapeake Bay rivers and inlets. Once on Golden Hill Road, the scenery on both sides turned into beautiful fields full of sweet-smelling grasses and fragrant flowers. From what I learned, this land in Dorchester County – on which Harriet Tubman toiled and performed her lifesaving work – has changed little since she roamed it.
Soon, we saw the sign for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center and made the right onto the sprawling grounds. The state park itself comprises 17 pristine acres adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and is a key destination on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Byway. From this location, the National Park Service manages both the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Currently the Network to Freedom makes up 619 sites, programs, and facilities in 40 states, including Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument was created by President Barack Obama on March 25, 2013, by an executive order under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The 480-acre Jacob Jackson Home Site was donated to the National Park Service for inclusion in the new national monument.
Once inside the Visitor Center, you will wind your way through the multitude of information stations, reproductions, and captioned photos. Inevitably, a gradual transformation takes place inside of you. As you delve deeper and deeper into the lives of Harriet Tubman, her family and acquaintances, and the freedom seekers she rescued – you cannot help but become immersed in their pain and suffering. You can easily imagine yourself in their situation, and take on the helplessness they felt.
This Center is marvelous in its ability to provide a thorough history of Tubman and the machinations necessary to make the Underground Railroad the success it became in freeing thousands of enslaved people. Parents, with their arms encircling their children, read to, or along with, their families – many learning about their own ancestors and the long road to freedom.
Detailed information recounts the lives of Tubman and her family. Born Araminta “Minty” Ross to free man, Ben Ross, and enslaved, Harriet ‘Rit’ Green, she was the middle child of nine. Because Rit was enslaved, all of her children were as well. And at the age of six, Tubman’s slaveholder, Edward Brodess, hired her out – separating her from her family. In the ensuing years, she had a variety of temporary masters, many of whom terrorized her.
A defining event in her life occurred at the Bucktown General Store, when an angry overseer threw a two-pound iron scale weight at an enslaved young man and hit Tubman by accident. It hit her in the head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. As a result, she suffered debilitating seizures and headaches for the rest of her life. After the injury, she felt she had a direct connection with God, which she believed strengthened her courage. That, and her family’s amazing resilience, gave her all the courage she needed to perform her calling.
In her early twenties, Minty Ross married a free man, John Tubman, and changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Though living together, Harriet remained enslaved. Free and enslaved couples could marry but it was not considered to be legally binding. In 1849, after she faced being sold, she decided to flee, leaving John behind. While enslaved, Tubman took every opportunity to learn the intricate series of marshes and canals, which she used in making her way to freedom.
In the following years, Tubman made at least 13 more trips back to the Eastern Shore in her successful bid to free her family and friends – rescuing about 70 people in all.
Following enaction of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, freedom seekers were no longer guaranteed safety in “free” states. They needed guidance to find their way out of the country; the Underground Railroad was there, providing safe passage to the “free” states, and eventually to Canada.
These feats of heroism caught the attention of Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who arranged for Tubman to travel to the Union’s military post in Port Royal, South Carolina, where she took on an integral role in the dismantling of the plantation system and the extrication of thousands of slaves.
Tubman moved her family between Philadelphia and St. Catherines, Ontario, eventually settling in Auburn, New York, where she lived out the rest of her life. She passed on March 10, 1913, of pneumonia at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which she had opened at the age of 80. She was laid to rest in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery.
Following our fascinating, several-hour tour of the Visitor Center, we decided to take a walk around the grounds and attempt to digest all of the heart-wrenching history we had just learned. On our way out, we saw park guides beginning student tours in classrooms with audio-visual backup.
Once inside our car, we took a scenic drive past the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. We made stops to exit the car, take in the untouched beauty, and smell the fragrance of freedom – so redolent in the fields and waterways utilized by those fleeing slavery. We eventually came upon the infamous Bucktown General Store, where Tubman received the misdirected blow to the head by the overseer. And the rest – as they say – is history.
Oh yes! I really would love to spend quality time with the bold, amazing, heroine, Harriet Tubman. But for now – I’m satisfied to have had the opportunity to immerse myself in her fascinating life through this wonderful park. I know you will enjoy it too.
This article was originally published November 28, 2018.