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Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

Spontaneous trips are often the best ones. A loosely-planned weekend trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland turned into a moving trip through the history of slavery and the underground railroad.

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway is a self-guided driving tour that stretches from Dorchester County in Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Harriet Tubman was born and raised, to Philadelphia. Stops along the byway tell Tubman's story, the stories of free Blacks, slaves seeking freedom, and the other underground railroad conductors who helped them find it. 

My friend and I only thought we would stop at a few sites, but were quickly drawn in and rearranged our initial itinerary to fit in more stops. To be able to see the places where such an amazing woman lived, worked, and struggled was incredibly powerful and reminded me that this history is right in our backyards, closer than we usually think about in the course of our daily lives. 

I highly recommend that everyone take this tour at some point. We learned that the byway will be completed in 2018. Some stops later on the tour, like the William Still Family Interpretive Center, are not fully constructed or open to the public yet, and there seem to be some kinks to work out with the audio tour that you can listen to as you drive. Still, this was an amazing experience and I plan to return to visit the stops I missed, including the ones in Delaware and Philadelphia. 

Here are just a few highlights from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway tour.

1. Dorchester County Visitor Center

This is where the tour begins. If you haven't downloaded or ordered your driving tour guide and map, this is the place to pick up a copy and any other tourist information. It also has a beautiful view of the Choptank River and a boardwalk, where you might catch a sunset over the water. 

2. Dorchester County Courthouse


During slavery, slaves were auctioned off at the front of this courthouse. Harriet Tubman's niece, Kessiah, and her two children escaped the auction block when Kessiah's husband, a free black man, outbid the others and escaped with his family before anyone could collect payment. They then met Harriet Tubman in Baltimore and she led them to Philadelphia. Other interesting pieces of history took place at this courthouse, including public executions on the courthouse green and a bombing that took place in the 60's while a Black Panther stood trial. 

3. Long Wharf

Now a beautiful and serene place for boats to dock and for visitors to look out on the water from the Choptank Lighthouse, this used to be where ships from Africa and the West Indies brought slaves to sell. 

4. Stanley Institute

The Stanley Institute is the oldest intact one-room schoolhouse in Dorchester County owned and operated by the local Black community. It operated until 1966. Its location is also in the area where 44 slaves successfully escaped from farms in 1857--that escape was called the "Stampede of Slaves" by national newspapers. 

We didn't think we would be able to look inside the schoolhouse, so we stopped by the side of the road just to take a quick picture from the car. Luckily, a woman named Shirley Green (I hope I remember that correctly!) saw us as she drove by and asked if we wanted to go inside. Of course, we said yes. It turns out Ms. Green attended school there during segregation. She told us how her teacher taught all ages of children in that one-room schoolhouse--she basically ran everything on her own.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is when the stars align and you run into someone with personal, historical knowledge that makes history even more real and reminds you how closely connected we are with the past. 

5. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center

Just opened in March 2017, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center is beautifully designed and naturally beautiful, as well. It includes an exhibit that tells the story of Harriet Tubman's life, a theater, and a gift shop. I often skip the gift shop, but I'm glad I went in this time because it doesn't just have the usual keychains and magnets. I was tempted to buy at least three different books, but instead bought a National Parks Passport, which I am ridiculously excited about, and got my first cancellation stamp!

6. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Despite the crazy July heat, I could have stayed on this wildlife refuge for hours. You have the option of walking trails or taking the Wildlife Drive to view the scenery. We did both. Along the drive we saw herons, egrets, turtles (I helped one cross the road and probably saved his life, just saying), red-winged blackbirds, deer, and noises from a lot of unidentified wildlife. The beauty and vastness of the wilderness mixed with the history of slavery made this experience a unique and moving one.

The refuge is part of the Tubman byway tour because since the land is preserved and unaffected by development, it shows the kind of terrain Harriet Tubman and others in the area had to work and possibly navigate to escape slavery. Harriet Tubman was sent into the marshes in the dead of winter to trap muskrats with no boots or proper clothing as a child. Years of work familiarized her with the land and that knowledge later served to guide herself and others to freedom. 

7. Brodess Farm

At this site, the home of Edward Brodess, Harriet Tubman's owner, used to stand. She lived and worked here in her early years before Brodess moved them to another of his farms. Brodess often hired his slaves out to other farmers in the area, separating Harriet from her mother for most of their time here.

8. Webb Cabin

The Webb Cabin was built by James H. Webb, a free Black farmer, around 1852. He lived here with his enslaved wife and four children. Inside the cabin you can see the original logs Webb used (the siding on the exterior was added to preserve the original logs) and a "potato hole" where escaping slaves could be hidden.

If you visit the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where the Webbs' church used to stand, you will find a corner of the graveyard where many Webbs are buried, including James H. Webb and his wife. Unfortunately, the 19th century graves are damaged and in disrepair, but it is still worth a visit to experience a part of history. 

9. Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House

Sitting on a green space between a truck lot and a post office is a Quaker meeting house built in 1803. Its members were part of the local Underground Railroad network and it was one of five Quaker meeting houses in Caroline County whose members provided support and shelter to escaping slaves. Abolitionist Hannah Leverton spoke here and was married here, as well.

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