On The Road To Harriet Tubman

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During my pursuit I have encountered so many generous and dedicated researchers, like the men and women of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Learning Center in Cambridge, Maryland, who supervise pilgrimages and tours, as well as the annual Harriet Tubman Day celebrations (around March 10). The local historian John Creighton believes his mission must focus on his home region of the Eastern Shore, although of course he recognizes Tubman as a figure of national importance. Tourism is fine, he says, but “that’s not my priority. My focus is on community history: to have local community members filling in the gaps of our history and genealogy.” Creighton’s own journey began when, as a high school history teacher, he visited the Schomburg Center, the great repository of African-American history in New York City. He’d gone there eager to learn more about “Harriet Tubman and other self-liberators , a term I prefer to fugitive slaves .” Today Creighton’s research takes into account oral histories from descendants of “Bucktown families who know the fields and waterways of the country.” He stresses that we all are indebted to those men and women who have been carrying the torch for years.

The women include Vivian Abdur-Rahim of Wilmington, Delaware, who recently spoke at a Washington, D.C., conference co-sponsored by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is due to open in Cincinnati this summer. Abdur-Rahim believes that obligations connected with Harriet Tubman renew her. She honors Tubman’s legacy wherever it takes her, as when she boarded a bus to Canada to be present for the dedication of a marker at a church in St. Catharines, Ontario, where Tubman once lived and worshiped.

When I was touring the Eastern Shore with the researchers Patricia Guida and J.O.K. Walsh, I felt the powerful influence of place. My guides were passionate about finding the actual ground from which Harriet set out on her road to freedom. As we tramped over the fields once owned by Dr. Anthony Thompson, one of Harriet’s masters, Walsh spoke excitedly about his work documenting structures related to Tubman and the larger Underground Railroad network. He is head of both the Caroline County Historical Society and the nonprofit Caroline Economic Development Corporation because “creating tourism using heritage sites is a seamless, although challenging, vocation.” Walsh says that when he began his historical research, he found out just “how much undiscovered information is still out there on Harriet Tubman.”

This was reinforced in a most unexpected way through an extraordinary discovery made by a Maryland native named Jay Meredith. In 1997 Meredith moved his family to Bucktown, to settle on property where his slaveholding ancestors had once lived. He hoped to create a tourist site at the refurbished Bucktown Village Store when he established the nonprofit Bucktown Village Foundation to protect and restore local heritage. This store was the place where, as a young slave, Harriet Tubman once ran ahead to warn a fellow fieldworker about a pursuing overseer. Harriet came between the enraged overseer and the fleeing slave and was felled by an iron weight. The store is one of relatively few documented sites from Harriet’s years in Maryland.

Asked if this enterprise is an attempt to make up for his family’s role in slavery, Jay Meredith counters that Bucktown’s slaveholding past is “my heritage and part of history. You can’t hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist.” Instead, he and his wife, Susan, and their three children hope tours reflecting Tubman’s life and the Underground Railroad will not only illuminate neglected aspects of Maryland’s past but help bridge the color line within their own community.

 

In the early spring of 2003 Meredith heard that the heirs of a family that had lived for generations in the same Eastern Shore house were filling up a dumpster. He asked if he might take a look at what was being thrown out; granted permission, he and his wife donned old clothes and dug in. To their amazement, the couple unearthed a paper containing an advertisement for the runaway Tubman, the first published piece of evidence documenting her flight and something that had always eluded scholars and archivists.

To hear Vivian Abdur-Rahim testify, to hear John Creighton meditate and J.O.K. Walsh speculate, to visit the Bucktown Village Store—all this was deeply moving to a scholar who was trying to cross boundaries, and the memories kept me company while I faced a blank computer screen.

IT WAS EASY TO FILL PAGES WITH TRIBUTES TO TUBMAN’S heroism and humility, but she was more fascinating because of her idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. She was generous to a fault—her friend and patron William H. Seward often scolded her for putting the needs of others above her own —and one time a black family who took in Tubman and her party of fugitives for the night was perhaps startled when, preparing to leave the next morning, Harriet peeled off an undergarment to leave behind for her hosts. It was the only thing she had to offer to show her appreciation for safe haven.