CAMBRIDGE – Acres of farms and marshy wetlands dominate the landscape of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, little changed from when Harriet Tubman was born and enslaved there for the 30 years before her escape.
Visitors have come to follow her path along the boggy Choptank River for years, but renewed efforts of county, state, and national organizations have made the pilgrimage process easier. They have created a historic byway that guides visitors to 19 sites where the struggles of escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad are revealed.
A congressional bill awaiting committee approval would create the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park to protect this landscape from future development. This is the second year the Maryland and New York Senate delegations have introduced the bill.
“People have been talking about this for 30 years and it’s finally gaining momentum,” said Dorchester County Tourism Director Amanda Fenstermaker.
Tubman, born around 1820 as Araminta Ross, labored at the Broddess Farm in Dorchester County. When her slave master died and she learned she would be sold as part of the estate, she escaped, using knowledge she had gained of an underground network of safe houses from Maryland, up to New York and into Canada. She retraced those steps 19 times to conduct her fellowmen to freedom; earning the title “the Moses of her people.”
The bill would preserve more than 5,000 acres on the Eastern Shore, establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in Maryland, and protect sites in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman lived and continued her community service after the Civil War.
Much of the land is privately owned, such as the 1803 Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House in Caroline County, where Quakers aided escaping fugitives. Maryland’s portion of the bill’s $11 million in grants could be used to purchase easements to protect these lands from development, Fenstermaker said.
The office of co-sponsor Sen. Benjamin Cardin indicated the bill has a lot of support, though the staff said they don’t expect any action until spring. But Tubman fans are used to waiting.
Their struggle to restore her place in the nation’s memory has taken more than 40 years, beginning when the late Addie C. Travers held the first sparsely attended Harriet Tubman Day in the 1960’s.
Tubman memories had faded from their height at her death in 1913, where she was given a funeral with full military honors. Booker T. Washington, perhaps the most respected African American of his day, spoke at the unveiling of a plaque to memorialize Tubman a year later.
“It is most fitting and proper from every point of view that the name of Harriet Tubman should be perpetuated by means of this tablet so that her memory and deeds can live in the minds and hearts of the present generation, and can be held up as an object lesson for all time to the generations that follow,” Washington said.
But generations have a way of forgetting. Travers, who had heard little of Tubman while growing up in Dorchester County, used the last years of her life to restore Tubman’s name to prominence. She founded the Harriet Tubman Association of Dorchester County in 1983.
By 1989, the organization achieved its goal of opening a community cultural center, which now hosts exhibits in Cambridge.
Travers died in 1994, but the army of memory keepers grew. Others such as Eastern Shore history buffs Brice Stump and John Creighton, along with past Tubman organization president Evelyn Townsend have brought Tubman’s memory out of the shadows.
The work of those early advocates began to resonate another decade later. In 1990, Congress authorized a national celebration of Harriet Tubman Day, granting the perpetuity that Booker T. Washington thought was proper.
Tubman’s memory is one step closer to permanence, with last month’s release of Congress’ Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study Act of 2000. The study said the area meets the National Park Service standards for significance, suitability, and feasibility.
Maryland is moving ahead with a planned 17-acre Tubman state park. On Jan. 28 the state Board of Public Works approved a $2.2 million design contract for the park, memorial gardens and visitor’s center to be located near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, in the area of Tubman’s birth.
“Our goal is to be visitor-ready by the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death,” said Fenstermaker, which is fast approaching in 2013.
The Dorchester County Tourism Council hopes to have information kiosks at each historic site, with an audio tour prepared for those who take the freedom trail.
Even with so much information compiled, research into Tubman’s life continues, according to biographer and historian Kate Larson, an adjunct history professor at Simmons College in Boston.
“The mystery about the Underground Railroad isn’t so mysterious anymore,” Larson said.
New research has revealed some historical inaccuracies. Larson’s findings suggest that Tubman assisted 70 slaves to freedom, not the 300 of previous estimates. It is also unlikely that Tubman ever uttered the often quoted words, “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”
But these new revelations don’t diminish the national significance of a woman who took action to offer freedom to the oppressed. The state park, and perhaps a national park, will preserve this piece of our national past.
“Her story is even greater,” Larson said, “than the myths we’ve grown up with.”