I discovered the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park a couple of months after moving back to the U.S. while searching for places to learn about Black history in Maryland. So when Outdoor Afro Washington D.C. suggested we all take trip east to celebrate the park’s one year anniversary, a family day-trip was born. The night before, we all watched the documentary Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad to get a give the children a quick lesson on the mid-19th century network of secret routes that aided fleeing American slaves. But the documentary didn’t prepare me for the deep sense of gratitude and pride that would be stirred by visiting this historic site.
Entering Church Creek is like going back in time. Stop signs replace traffic lights. The speed limit slows to a crawl. Acres of farmland surrounds you in all directions. Four futuristic-looking clapboard houses stood tall on our right as we pulled into the visitor center parking lot — the center’s southernmost point. After entering, the smiling rangers guided us left. This began our journey north where we stopped at each of the center’s “stations” to read, watch, and listen to stories about adventure, struggle and freedom.
The Underground Railroad’s most famous “Conductor” stood only 5 feet tall. She was born “Araminta” (“Minty” for short) which befittingly means “defender” in Greek. One of her jobs as child slave was to hunt muskrats in Maryland’s freezing marshes during winter without shoes. Tubman was a master navigator, having learned to read the sky from the Black boatmen who worked on the shore. Slaves escaped the plantations on foot, by boat, and in false bottom carriages, using information that was discretely exchanged among white abolitionists and free Blacks. The theory that fleeing slaves communicated using information found in quilts (“quilt codes”) was folklore.
After leaving the visitor center, we drove through the area surrounding Blackwater River, stopping to visit sites along the Underground Railroad Scenic Byway. The Bucktown Village Store, a couple of miles from Tubman’s birthplace, is where she was hit in the head with a weight by the store owner as a young girl — an injury she considered to be a gift from God. I was afraid to walk into the old store.
The owner, an avid storyteller, captured our kids’ attention, showing them an original newspaper featuring the “wanted” ad for Tubman’s capture and explaining how slave tags were used. Slavery had never been so real to me than it was at that moment. I wondered what Tubman’s very first escape was like and how she mustered the courage to return back some 100 miles 19 times, risking her life and freedom.
Standing next to her birthplace marker in Bucktown, I breathe in the fields, the trees, and the cloudy skies. It was one thing to read about her in books. But to consciously walk the same places she has walked is a privilege afforded to few. I wondered which way was north and how my ancestors left the known for the cold unknown. How did they survive the mid-Atlantic’s harsh winters? How did they trust the network of strangers?
There, standing in the presence of Tubman’s spirit, I offered a silent prayer. Because of her and many others, we are able to move comfortably about this town. For us, a weekend in Maryland’s Dorchester County means a different type of adventure. It means kayaking, fishing and hiking the Chesapeake’s manicured trails; it no longer means, “do or die trying.” Just like Minty, I plan to return again.