Freedom takes on new meaning after trip to Underground Railroad sites
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network / By Cindy Ross - Bay Journal
A yellow dog sleeps in the dirt under the Bucktown Store overhang. The sky is a deep blue. Except for a fly buzzing around the dog's head, all is peaceful. But as I step across the worn threshold of the door jam, visibly dipped and smoothed where thousands have placed their feet while entering, my mind whizzes back to the 1830s.
The black slave, Jim, has just entered the store without his master's permission. This infuriates the overseer, who corners him. He commands another slave, Harriet Tubman, who followed Jim here, to help capture and tie him up. She does the opposite. She blocks the door so he can not be pursued. A 2-pound weight is lifted off the counter and flung, slamming Tubman to the ground and fracturing her skull. The blow nearly kills her.
It is her first act of civil disobedience. From now on, everything in the life of this future "Moses of the Underground Railroad" will change.
After months of rehabilitation, Tubman was left with a peculiar symptom of suddenly falling asleep throughout the day. While unconscious, she experienced profound and lucid visions from God...instructions on how to lead her people to freedom.
This scene doesn't feel like it took place that long ago. Inside the Bucktown Store today, 2-foot wide wooden counter tops are smooth with wear. Shelves line all the walls. Single light bulbs are screwed into the painted ceiling with dangling cotton strings.
I, too, am traveling on the Underground Railroad in Dorchester County, MD, only it is 2007. The Bucktown Store is just one of the historical stops on the 105-mile Underground Railroad Driving Tour, a part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which runs through Dorchester and Caroline counties.
Nineteen historic sites and 14 areas take the visitor on one of the finest tours of our nation's history. Here to trace the paths of these courageous people, I am starting with Harriet Tubman, my hero, as well as the hero for the more than 300 people she guided to freedom.
The geography of the Chesapeake and its many tributaries was ideal for conducting the Underground Railroad. An old Choptank Indian path that was followed through these counties is now the route of a driving tour.
The water routes enabled small rafts and canoes to traverse the streams, while larger boats sailed the open waters of the Chesapeake, hiding the slaves in their holds.
The location was also perfect because Maryland-directly south of the Mason-Dixon Line- was the last station that separated bondage from freedom. For 30 years leading up to the Civil War, this area was a hotbed for some of the most daring escapes and frightening rescues in history.
Of course, the Underground Railroad wasn't a locomotive with cars and a track at all, but a 500-mile network of secret passages. Historian Robert C. Smedley enlightens us to the origin of the term:
"In the early part of the Underground Railroad, slaves were hunted and tracked as far as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. There, pursuers lost all trace of them. The most scrutinizing inquiries, the most vigorous search, failed to educe any knowledge of them. These pursuers seemed to have reached an abyss, beyond which they could not see, the depths of which they could not fathom, and in their bewilderment and discomfiture they declared that, 'There must be an underground railroad somewhere.'"
I began the driving tour in Cambridge, at the Dorchester County Visitors' Center at Sailwinds Park East. They have a well-researched exhibit on the Underground Railroad as well as excellent maps.
Just 8 miles from Bucktown, where Harriet Tubman lived, Cambridge is located on the banks of the Choptank, the river "highway."
Although the slave auction block is gone, the Dorchester County Courthouse in Cambridge is virtually unchanged since 1850. Tubman, who had successfully escaped to Philadelphia, returned to this courthouse to conduct her first rescue. Her niece, Keziah and her two young children were about to be sold and shipped south. During the auction, a ruckus was staged to disturb and divert the crowd as the three were whisked away. My interpreter, Royce Sampson, with REI Heritage Tours, brings the story alive, reliving the excitement, the commotion, the narrow escape.
The courthouse sits on brick-lined High Street, where period homes housed all of the lawyers and judges who tried free and enslaved blacks alike.
Tubman would walk behind these houses, her head wrapped in a colored cloth, singing the Negro spiritual, "Steal Away." This was her secret message to the slaves inside that her train was about to leave.
We drove out of town past the fields that were once part of plantations. The land on this part of the Eastern Shore remains remarkably unchanged since the days of the Underground Railroad.
The marshes that once hid runaways are still present. The forests once were the domain of woodchoppers, like Tubman's father and Harriet herself, who, after her blow, proved to be "unfit for indoor, domestic work." She grew unusually strong as she chopped wood, plowed fields, drove oxen and hauled logs.
Her father taught her how to read the stars. This enabled her to navigate the skies through places like the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge that we pass on Key Wallace Drive.
We turn onto Greenbriar Road and stop at Tubman's historical marker and the spot where the Brodess Farm, where Tubman grew up, once stood. I shield my eyes from the sun and look down the stony drive that led to the house. I wonder if she ever skipped happily down this path. Or did her daily beatings since the age of 5 cast a sorrowful pall over her entire childhood?
On the night before she was to be sold to a southern slaveholder, Tubman crept along these very field rows, sleeping by day, traveling by night, eventually making it to Philadelphia in a cart covered with vegetables.
"There are two things I got a right to," she said, "freedom and death. One or the other I mean to have."
There is so much Underground Railroad history to experience in Dorchester County and adjoining Caroline County that a full weekend is necessary.
Before calling it a day, we meander down Choptank Road right over the county border, toward the Choptank River Landing. The orange sunset lights up the marshland. The river burns as if on fire. Back in the 1800s, it would be getting close to "pushing off time," stealing away to the next station. On this very landing, freedom seekers were escorted upriver to Tubman's parents' home on Poplar Neck.
There, Conductor Harriet would meet them and lead them to freedom. She made 19 trips back to Dorchester County, rescuing 300 relatives and friends from the "Jaws of Hell."
Standing here in the fading light, I think of how she carried opium to quiet babies and a six-shooter strapped to her leg under her skirts to ward off pursuers. If her passengers got scared and wanted to return to their slaveholders, her reply was, "Dead niggers tell no tales. You go or you die. I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."
After our Chesapeake Underground Railroad experience, I traveled across the Mason-Dixon Line into Lancaster County, PA, to immerse myself in the story even more. This is the spot where the tracks of the Underground Railroad disappeared for the pursuers.
As soon as the entrance song ends at Lancaster's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Edward Bailey raises his arms to the heavens and prays aloud with mighty enthusiasm. He asks if we "runaway slaves" are scared, hungry, tired and lonely and want to be relieved from our bondage? If we want to loosen the pain and misery we have experienced? Some in the audience cry out, "Amen!" "That's Right!" and "Lord have Mercy." The entire audience participates in this re-enactment, and we have lost ourselves in the drama of the moment.
The actors and actresses of the Bethel Harambee Historical Services have a mission: to share the story of the Underground Railroad, and one of its "tracks," which passed through the heart of Lancaster. The audience has a role, too. We are freedom seekers, resting only a short time, before moving toward Canada and freedom.
Back in 1848, this African-American church was a refuge and a stop on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers journeyed from as far away as the Deep South and as close by as neighboring Maryland and Delaware. Tubman probably led people through this church.
Slaves came here to listen for directions, times, the people and the places that would help them become free. The messages came through the songs that were selected. When the song, "Hush!" was sung, it meant there were special people in the group that needed attention, such as babies and children. If six verses were sung, there were six little ones to look out for. The message in the song "Wade in the Water" announced that their route would cross water. The lyrics to "Steal Away" communicated that it was time to leave quickly. Perhaps a storm was predicted that would obliterate their tracks while the lightning would provide intermittent light for their journey.
Phoebe M. Bailey, sister of the Rev. Bailey, walks the aisles of the church, portraying Olivia, a young slave girl named from the area. She related an unbelievable and horrifying story. Olivia discovered that her master brutally chopped off her beloved brother's body parts, one by one, before killing him. The heartless man informed her of this while she was serving his guests. Olivia acted as if she were actually serving us, fighting back tears, anger and intense fear, while keeping her calm. Everyone's eyes in the congregation were wet with tears. These stories are a compilation based on real history researched by interns from local colleges, and it touched something deep inside me.
For the last eight years, the nonprofit organization has presented the Living African History of Lancaster, PA, and the enslavement saga to a variety of audiences.
The script for the performance was a collaborative effort between researchers, cast and directors. The company, which ranges in age from 10 to 70, has performed for more than 26,000 visitors from around the world. The show runs weekdays and Saturday from February through December, and is set in the original 1821 historic church building. They tell the stories of Harriet Tubman and many other unsung heroes.
As the two-hour performance came to a close, we were suddenly startled by the sound of baying hounds (over a loudspeaker) and a U.S. marshal burst through the church doors. He carried a gun, and in a raucous voice, demanded that we give up the runaway slaves we have hiding in the church pews.
"You got to help me!" he demanded. "The Fugitive Slave Law says you got to give them up!" The actors and actresses began singing "Freedom!" and was joined by everyone in the church. Our combined voices chased him out.
As we "slaves" filed out the pews, shepherded on to freedom, singing "Jacob's Ladder," we were told to look for candles in windows-two candles means keep moving, one candle means welcome. Even the quilts hanging on the wash line have hidden directional messages.
We are different from the people we were when we entered. The experiences we've had exploring the Underground Railroad have left their mark on us. We understand a little better how ordinary people, like Harriet Tubman, and every soul connected to this astounding Underground Railroad, could do the extraordinary. The thirst for freedom is insatiable.
All American Road
In February, Maryland's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway will be nominated as an All American Road, a designation that would bring eligibility for federal funding to preserve key resources, create interpretive programs and improve the road for pedestrians, cyclists, driving tours, trucks and farm equipment.
The Underground Railroad
- Dorchester County Department of Tourism: Call 1-800-522-TOUR or visit http://www.tourdorchester.org/.
- The Underground Railroad / Maryland's Network to Freedom: To obtain a copy of this brochure, visit http://www.visitmaryland.org/ or call 877-663-8477.
- African-American Heritage Guide: There are 10 Maryland-based tour services for African/American heritage experiences. Pick up this guide at the Maryland Office of Tourism or call 800-719-5900.
- Living the Experience: Bethel Harambee Historical Services in Lancaster, PA: Visit http://www.bethelamelancaster.org/, call 717-509-1177 or 800-510-5899, or e-mail LiveItBethel@aol.com.
- Lancaster County Pennsylvania Dutch Visitor's Bureau: Call 717-735-0311 or 800-PA-DUTCH, or visit http://www.padutchcountry.com/.
- Gettysburg Visitors Bureau: Call 717-338-1052.
- Greater Philadelphia Tourism: Call 215-599-7433.
- Delaware-Greater Wilmington Visitors Bureau: Call 302-295-2212.
- Kent County Visitors Bureau: Call: 800-233-KENT.
Freedom takes on new meaning after trip to Underground Railroad sites
Article from Bay Journal - Feb 2008
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