Harriet Tubman has always been one of my “Shero’s”… she was determined, proud, courageous, fearless and committed to the liberation of her family and people! Sister Harriet is a woman true to my own heart…her story has always resonated with me and I know her spirit and energy runs through my veins. I remember years ago teaching my 4 children and the Prekindergarten and Kindergarten students in my classes about Harriet Tubman. I used to beam as I listened to them proudly recite the words: “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff and wasn’t scared of nothing either” from the poem by the beloved late and great children’s book author, Eloise Greenfield, in her book: Honey, I Love. So, when Rasheeda Bey – a sister friend, phenomenal doll maker, quilter and artist, mentioned that her quilting circle – Sankofa Sistah Quilting Circle was sponsoring a one-day trip, The Harriet Tubman Tour, to Cambridge, Maryland, I was immediately interested in going. Typically, if I am not the planner of a trip, I usually ask questions to get clarity on the specifics, especially if it involves a flight or is an international trip, but this was a bus trip to Cambridge, Maryland, so I decided to go with the flow. I wasn’t sure what to expect – if we were going to a physical museum, or a tour of historic sites, but either way I was eager to go and so glad I did. In this blog post I will give you a closer look at the life and legacy of sister Harriet Tubman and the environment where she was born, enslaved, toiled, escaped from and returned numerous times to help free many others.
The trip consisted of a comfortable bus ride, with a bunch of chatty and friendly people (mostly women, although there were a few men in our midst), a group tour with sight-seeing of the environment/geography, local sites and historic landmarks: including the wharf, plantations, slave dwellings, fields, courthouse, general store, and a stop at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center. The tour was led and curated by a local brother Alex Green. Alex and his wife Lisa are owners of HarrietTubmanTours.com A delicious home-cooked lunch was provided by his wife at a local historic church and we also had the opportunity to hear from and chat with some of the elders from their historic community.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Tour that follows one of the routes she took north, connecting sites where she rescued others, found assistance, or reached safety at stops on the Underground Railroad. The Byway tour encompasses 45 sites and travels through Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The tour has an accompanying map, downloadable or streaming audio guide, and a mobile app. One day in the near future, I intend to take a scenic drive and conduct this full tour using the interpretive markers, audio tour stops, exhibits and historical places.
Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822. She was the fifth of nine children born to her parents Ben and Rit Ross, and upon her entry to the world she was marked by the label of “slave“. From an early age she also had to face separation trauma as three of her sisters were sold away to masters with plantations in the deep south. Then at the tender age of 6-years old, she was taken from her mother and hired out to cruel slave masters, who inflicted tremendous physical and mental abuse and suffering.
She not only endured the separation from her family, but she also suffered the lash and later survived a near fatal head injury that left her with permanent medical issues.
Driving along the empty highway in Cambridge, Maryland on a sunny day in October 2018, I was struck by how rural the landscape still is today. Few cars or vehicles passed us on the road, and it was largely undeveloped as far as the eye could see. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to escape from a plantation there in 1849, the year Harriet Tubman escaped and eventually found her way through Delaware to freedom in Philadelphia. We passed the land where Brodess Farm used to exist, which was owned by Edward Brodess, the slave master who “owned” Harriet’s family. Harriet was enslaved on this farm and spent her early years there. Brodess hired Harriet out to work (as a young child) for neighboring farmers, which caused emotional trauma, physical separation issues and even greater abuse for Harriet and her siblings.
Although half of the Black community in Dorchester County was free at the time of Harriet’s birth, her family was not free. She had a burning desire for freedom, justice and equality for not only herself, but also her family and her people. Harriet worked tirelessly toward that goal her entire life.
We saw the Dorchester County Courthouse where enslaved blacks were bought and sold on the auction block as chattel. In a desperate attempt to avoid being sold away from her family, Harriet Tubman’s niece, Kessiah and her two children escaped from that very auction block in 1850 with the help of Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley (a free Black ship carpenter). He deceived the buyers and transported them by boat to Baltimore, where Harriet met them and took them to freedom in Philadelphia. Courthouse Square is where they held captured runaway slaves, conductors and agents on the Underground Railroad.
This city of Cambridge, Maryland later became known as the “Black Wall Street” on the eastern shore of Maryland. There was a thriving Black community on Pine Street and nearby neighborhoods of homes, businesses, art, culture and churches that thrived until the turbulent protests of the 60’s and a major fire that destroyed much of Pine Street. Today, Pine Street still holds a place of importance for Black life and culture in the Cambridge community and houses significant churches and organizations.
Bucktown General Village Store is the site where Harriet Tubman was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight hurled by an angry overseer which almost killed her. The incident disabled her and left her with severe life-long side effects, including migraines and debilitating seizures. Yet, Harriet didn’t let any of that stop her or hinder her quest for freedom. She truly had her mind on freedom – she was a fighter for justice, a warrior sister- true to my own heart!
The Stanley Institute began as the Rock School and it was moved to this site in 1867. It was built and run as a one room school-house by the local Black community, demonstrating the determination of the Black community to educate their children in the era of segregation. The school was used until the 1960’s.
As soon as I entered the doorway of the one-room school-house, it took me back in time. I was immediately lost in my thoughts… I always had a dream of teaching in a one-room school-house, with a big old fireplace and wooden floors with oak paneled walls. When my family and I used to drive to the Poconos to visit my parents, there was a one-room schoolhouse on the way – which was also a historic site. We used to stop and explore the schoolhouse, my sons always had to “use” the outhouse and we would drink the cold water from the well. I still imagine what it would be like to teach in a school building like that. I envision a cozy reading area in the corner of the room with a large recliner with a big pillow – where all the children of different ages would gather for story time… and I would read a chapter book of adventures or tales from far away… I could visualize the little ones laying on their blankets enjoying the stories and eventually drifting off to sleep – with the older ones becoming more engaged in the stories… oh, the dreams of a lifetime educator...
As I looked at the old oak framed chalk board, I was reminded of days gone by, and I reflected on the early days of my parents’ schooling. My mother also attended a tiny one room school-house for her early grades in Bennettsville, South Carolina and her recollection of that school mirrored this one. I thought of all the lessons that had been written and countless children who had written their letters, words and schoolwork on that chalkboard. Today visitors sign their names on the chalkboard as a record of their visitation to the school.
I wrote my name as a testament to the power of the human spirit…a testament that I too, a daughter of enslaved Africans, with great-grandparents from 4 continents, also walked through the doors of this one-room school-house and sat in those same desks that were used over 100 years ago. Yes, the people continue…and I was strengthened as a truth-teller and an advocate for justice. I am blessed to continue to tell our story, the story of a people taken from their homeland and their plight to survive and thrive throughout the diaspora among unbelievable odds.
Christ Rock United Methodist Church is a historic church located in Dorchester County, Maryland, directly across the street from the Stanley Institute. It was built in 1875, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The architecture displays the distinctive characteristics and craftsmanship of the time period from 1875-1911. The initial congregation consisted of Blacks who relocated to that area after the end of the Civil War. The church was traditionally used for church and funerary services, and a cemetery is adjacent on a wooded 1 1/2 acre lot on the grounds. The church was used until the late 1990’s. In 2011, Friends of Stanley Institute conducted a renovation to reuse the church as a public historical site and museum.
We visited a local church for lunch and Alex and Lisa provided us with a home-cooked soul food meal…fried trout (delicious), fried chicken and Swedish meatballs (for the meat eaters), macaroni and cheese, greens, salad and homemade pound cake. During our lunch we were fortunate to hear from some of the elders of the community who told us stories from their upbringing as well as stories passed down from the early days of Dorchester County. I love to hear their stories! Rasheeda unveiled her beautiful Harriet Tubman quilt – which displays Harriet Tubman holding a whittled wooden rifle, surrounded by images from her life.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center. The center has a permanent exhibit detailing Harriet Tubman’s early years in Maryland, her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and her latter life. There were numerous exhibits featuring images, stories and informative panels. Our time was short at this stop, yet we could have easily spent hours here learning more specific information about her life.
A huge thank you to Sister Rasheeda Bey, the Sankofa Sistah Quilting Circle for making this trip possible, and to Harriet Tubman Tours for your informative tour detailing the rich history of Harriet Tubman and Black folks in Dorchester, Maryland.
Acknowledgments to The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center Welcome Guide and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Driving Tour Guide for the detailed, and researched information about Harriet’s life and legacy.