One of American history’s bravest and boldest individuals now has her own national historical park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Just opened in spring 2017, the park includes a visitor center, hiking trails, and pavilion and is also part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The timing was ideal; my institution had just finished their campus book discussion on Octavia Butler’s Kindred, set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in a world that would have been all too familiar to Tubman. With the memories of the novel fresh in my mind and since my family is passionate about history in general, and the Underground Railroad in particular, we were excited to finally visit this site.
Though Maryland is a small state, only a few hours of driving can result in a drastic difference of landscape. The view out the car window from the central part we call home to the Eastern Shore changed from hardwoods, hills, highways, and strip malls to flat fields, scrubby pines, and open spaces. In the distance, viewed through a rainy car window, abandoned farm buildings looked weary and regretful and fields pressed down by the firm rain. Passing the sign for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, you see the new Harriet Tubman park rising from the fields, forest, and marshes.
The visitor center is staffed by friendly and knowledgable rangers and the gift shop offers a good variety of books on the Underground Railroad, Tubman, and African-American history. We began our visit with viewing an emotional portion of the filmed dedication ceremony with an actress portraying Tubman. As you move through the center, the interactive exhibits not only inform you about but engage you with history.
Harriet Tubman’s birth into slavery and her years as a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad are represented as well as beyond to her years as a Union army spy, suffragette, and activist for human rights.
“There was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would take the other, for no man should take me alive. I should fight for liberty as long as my strength lasted.” –Harriet Tubman
A mix of professional exhibits, current information about Tubman’s legacy, and professional and amateur artworks inspired by her are on display. Honestly, I was so absorbed in Tubman’s life story, I hardly took any photos while there.
Since the center is new, there are still some unfinished elements but any enthusiastic visitor will find these minor, if noticeable at all. As an educator eager to learn more and thinking about bringing students there, I peeked in the window for the library, but saw mostly boxes still stacked on the floor. The rangers informed us that they are not able to offer guided tours to individuals at this time and also hope to have an introductory video to orient visitors soon.
The park is a bit far for a day trip by itself but you could do it if you have more stamina than I. You could also consider tacking it on to a trip to the beach or make a couple days of it and explore the byway more fully. Cambridge, Maryland is the closest large town with amenities and has its own privately run Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center.
I believe we should honor the spirit and legacy of Tubman and so many other African-Americans whose names have been lost by visiting and supporting this new and beautiful historical site and others like them.
Have you ever been to any of the sites on or near the Underground Railroad Byway you’d recommend? Please share in the comments.