Monday, June 7, 2021

In the Footsteps of Harriet Tubman



 Many years ago, wandering down the Eastern Shore, Marianne and I came across the above historical marker at Harriet Tubman's birthplace. It was pretty clear that the property owners down at the bottom of that long drive weren't thrilled with association of their land with a woman whom all decent Americans now consider a hero. As the current photo suggests, they're still not.

Well... as it turns out, Ms. Tubman was probably born elsewhere. Making this simply the place where she was first utilized as a field slave. At age six.

[long pause]

Back then, you'd have had to be a historian to locate other sites associated with "the Moses of her people." But times have changed. The foundation of a house belonging to her father, originally a slave but later free, has been found within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and is currently being studied and preserved. As a result, an information center has been created just outside the refuge. Meanwhile, the state of Maryland has created a self-guided Tubman Byway driving tour, so you can go from site to site associated with her and with the underground railroad.

In an effort to shake off lockdown fever, Marianne and I made an overnight jaunt to Blackwater to ogle the bald eagles and other avifauna there. We thought we'd also take in the Tubman sites.

We're going to have to make a second trip.

As it turns out, there are a lot of sites to see and to appreciate them, you'd best read a biography and download the supplementary material explaining the stops on the tourist brochure map. But I can comment on two stops.

The second stop we made was the tourist info center. It contains the usual explanatory movie, a lot of bronze statuary, and explanatory graphics which, to be fair, did tell me things I didn't know. But it was just one of those places.

The first stop, though... Bucktown Village Store. Wow. It's a one-room clapboard store, the sort of place you'd zoom past without a second glance because it's obviously not important. But if Tubman's life were a novel, this is where it would begin. The twelve-year-old Harriet was in the store when a slave overseer, chasing a terrified young man, ordered her to grab him.

She did not. 

The overseer, in a rage, picked up a two-pound weight and threw it at the young man. It struck Tubman in the head, knocking her unconscious. This resulted in medical problems for the rest of her life, including epileptic seizures. The next day, she was back in the fields, bloody rag around her herrad.

Let me repeat. She was twelve years old.

In all the rest of her extraordinary life, she always worked for freedom and never for revenge. She was a far better human being than I can ever hope to be.

And . . .

On our way home, Marianne and I stopped for lunch in Denton. In front of the courthouse was an info-sign explaining that in the antebellum, there was a slave market there, where human beings were bought and sold. This would have been unthinkable back when I lived in the South.

The first step to reconciliation is admitting that something happened.

But also . . .

Driving across Maryland, I had to marvel at how little it had changed since Harriet Tubman's time. It's still damnably flat. It still alternates woodlands and farms. It's still a terrifying long trudge to freedom. The drive seemed to last forever. I cannot imagine what her flight felt like.


And finally . . .

The Harriet Tubman Museum of Cape May had to postpone their opening when the pandemic hit. But you can bet I'll be going there just as soon as it's safely opened.



 Above: That's it, the site of the first recorded act of defiance by Harriet Tubman, in all its sun-dusty glory.



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