The New York Times
Feb. 24, 2017
Feb. 24, 2017
At some point in the swelling rhapsody around Harriet Tubman’s remarkable life, it is easy to wonder, with perhaps a bit of guilt, where Tubman’s heroism ends and tall tales begin.
Somewhere between mythic and make-believe slave narratives, you want to hit pause and go searching for the truth of how, for instance, a fugitive slave slipped into Poplar Neck, Md., on Christmas Day in 1854 and stole off with her three brothers and several loved ones.
I traveled Maryland’s Eastern Shore, hoping to gain a deeper, more accurate understanding of Harriet Tubman, a complex American hero.
My trip coincided with the state’s renewed fervor around Tubman: On March 11, the Maryland State Park Service and the National Park Service will open the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, a $21 million project in Church Creek that commemorates Tubman’s journey, from slave to Underground Railroad “conductor” and, later in life, Civil War scout, spy and nurse. Sitting on 17 acres, the center will be part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile self-guided driving tour that wends through 36 significant sites along the Eastern Shore.
From the early 1600s until the mid-1800s, thousands of African-Americans would encounter the marshy wooded landscape of the Chesapeake Bay region, first as a gateway through which slave traders forcibly brought them from Africa into the colonies and later as essential paths and waterways that formed the Underground Railroad.
In 1850, Maryland had 279 runaway slaves, leading the nation’s slave states in successfully executed escapes, the author Kate Clifford Larson says in the Harriet Tubman biography “Bound for the Promised Land.” “But few returned to the land of their enslavers, risking capture and re-enslavement, even lynching, to help others seek their own emancipation,” Ms. Larson writes.
Among those few was Tubman.
In the Mire
The exact date of Harriet Tubman’s birth is unknown, but historians generally agree that she was born Araminta Ross in 1822 to Benjamin and Harriet (Rit) Greene Ross, taking on her mother’s first name when she married in 1844. She was born in nearby Peters Neck, on a farm owned by Anthony Thompson, a medical doctor and timber magnate, and was later moved to Bucktown.
The morning after my arrival in Cambridge, I took the 20-minute drive to the Bucktown farm of Edward Brodess, Dr. Thompson’s stepson and Tubman’s owner. It is a serene drive, as the landscape shifts quickly from urban to wide-open rural spaces, with acres of barren, tan-colored land stretching miles into the distance, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse.
Along the way I encountered some fascinating sites:
Joseph Stewart’s Canal
From 1810 to 1832, enslaved and free blacks dug a seven-mile canal through the marsh for commercial transportation. The canal was owned by the wealthy slaveholding Stewart family; and Tubman’s father, who worked at a nearby timbering operation, transported materials on the canal.
I also stopped briefly at the Stanley Institute, a one-room 19th-century schoolhouse that doubled as a church, and I sat at one of its wooden desks. It is one of the state’s oldest schools operated by the black community.
Tubman herself never learned to read or write. Starting at around 5 years old, she was lent out to nearby families to work; she checked muskrat traps in streams and rivers, and worked as a nursemaid to a planter’s child and later as a field hand on timber farms.
Bucktown Village Store
From Tubman’s era, the Bucktown Village Store, though renovated, still stands. It was there that Tubman, as a teenager, showed early signs of rebellion — and she paid dearly for it.
One day, Tubman had arrived at Bucktown Village Store with a slave owner’s cook, crossing paths with an overseer arguing with his slave. The slave apparently had left the farm without permission. When the overseer ordered Tubman to help him restrain the man, she refused and the slave broke away. The overseer then grabbed a two-pound weight off the counter, threw it at the fleeing slave and instead struck Tubman. The blow fractured Tubman’s skull and caused her to suffer severe headaches and seizures throughout her life.
Nearly a decade later, she married John Tubman, a free black man, even as she continued in servitude to the Brodess family. When her master died in 1849, Tubman and two of her brothers, Harry and Ben, fearing they would be sold, ran away — later returning for fear of punishment.
“God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
I stopped at a small log cabin built in the 1850s by James Webb, a free black farmer who lived there with his enslaved wife and four children.
These days, Paulette Greene and Donna Dear, an African-American couple, own some 130 acres of that property. Beneath a giant poplar called the “Witness Tree,” where folks travel from miles away to pray and hold spiritual retreats, we talked about the sacred history of this land. Then they invited me inside their home and treated me to a delicious soup of kidney and navy beans grown on their farm.
Shortly after returning to the farm, Tubman set out on her own, guided through the night by the North Star and well-worn paths of the Underground Railroad up into Pennsylvania, where slavery was illegal.
Tubman’s freedom proved to be bittersweet, as she would recount in her biography. In Philadelphia, she was free, working odd jobs, but lonely. Tubman began plotting her return home to bring her kin back with her: “I was free and dey should be free also. I would make a home for dem in de North, and de Lord helping me, I would bring dem all dere.”
In 1850, Tubman made her first trip back to Maryland, where, on the steps of the Dorchester County Courthouse (which was rebuilt in 1854 after a fire), Tubman’s niece, Kessiah, was scheduled to be auctioned off. But Tubman had plotted with Kessiah’s husband, who had been manumitted, to free his family. He secured the highest bid for Kessiah and their two children, smuggled them to a local safe house, then sailed up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, where Tubman greeted them and guided them to Philadelphia.
The rescue must have inspired Tubman. Over the next decade, she would return to Maryland’s Eastern Shore a dozen times, rescuing some 70 family members and friends.
Tubman was no-nonsense on these journeys, unwilling to suffer weakness among those joining her perilous flight. “For the faint of heart she carried a pistol, telling her charges to go on or die, for a dead fugitive slave could tell no tales,” Ms. Larson writes in her Tubman biography. “She used disguises; she walked, rode horses and wagons; sailed on boats; and rode on real trains...She bribed people. She followed rivers that snaked northward. She used the stars and other natural phenomenon to lead her north.”