Emancipation Day dawned sunny and promised to be warm, and as a crowd gathered on the grassy estate of Sandy Spring's Woodlawn Manor last weekend -- primed to sing, celebrate and learn more about Maryland's special position in the history of American race relations -- the tall banks of trees surrounding the 1790 brick house and its fenced-in meadows glowed yellow and festive.
"John Brown's body lies a moldin' in the grave," sang Kent Courtney of Hanover, Pa., peering at the crowd from under a black 1850s-era rimmed hat. A black, drooping bow perched under his chin and his suit and tweed overcoat of period wool gave the Civil War song about a fierce abolitionist an additional air of authenticity.
Boy Scouts from Pack 775, white families from Rockville and Montgomery Village, and black families from Sandy Spring, the District and Silver Spring congregated Saturday morning, eager for the "Underground Railroad Experience Hike" to begin. The group -- nearly 70 people -- would walk for a mile and a half to downtown Sandy Spring, past the prickle bushes and the hollowed-out tree that hid smoke from fires built by runaway slaves as they cautiously tried to make their way north to freedom.
Emancipation Day itself is technically Nov. 1, 1864, the date that Maryland slaves were freed by a new state constitution, which "made Maryland the first of the Civil War slave states to free, by popular vote, those held in bondage within its boundaries," according to organizers of the celebration.
This was necessary because President Abraham Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" freed slaves only in states that were "in rebellion against the United States." Maryland, having never seceded from the Union, was not included in that list, so the state had to pass its own legislation about slavery, said Susan Soderberg, a Montgomery County historian and one of the lead organizers of the day's festivities.
So on the first Saturday of November, the festivities geared up again, as they have done every year for the past eight years. Around midday, there would be barbecue for sale for lunch at the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, where visitors could see such exhibits as manumission (liberation) papers and other documents related to slavery, plus a variety of shackles and a Ku Klux Klan costume.
In the afternoon, there would be additional activities at an old slave home -- Oakley Cabin in Brookeville, the only slave cabin in Montgomery County that is open to the public.
But first, there was the Rural Legacy Trail hike, which began at the stone barn of Woodlawn Manor and passed through various terrains and environments before reaching the "safe haven" destination, in what were once free black and Quaker communities around Sandy Spring that helped many runaway slaves cross the Mason-Dixon Line between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Many of them were led by Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore and came to be known as the "Moses of her people."
The idea of the Emancipation Day celebration was to take hikers back in time so they could imagine themselves as escaping slaves who may have traveled the same paths.
"It was beautiful walking around," said Samyia Waters, 11, who lives a half-mile away from the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting and whose mother, Kim Waters, said she wanted the girl and her brother to experience the trail "so they could see what it was like for their forefathers."
But that sense of 21st-century autumnal beauty dissipated a bit as Samyia and Jaron -- or "Jaronimo," as his friends call him -- thought harder about what the slaves went through to cross terrain that the kids had walked through so simply with a crowd that was about half white and half black. The Waters children were especially stunned to learn that the slave owners who hunted runaways had trained dogs to track down blacks exclusively.
But they also liked learning about how clever the slaves were:
"I liked when they showed what the slaves did in the woods when they were getting hunted," Samyia said. "They'd hide in haystacks and the prickle bushes."
"The horses didn't like them [the prickle bushes]," Jaron added, sipping apple cider while nearby their 4-year-old sister played with a dog. "So they'd be safe in there."
Samyia acknowledged that when she was told they'd be experiencing the "Underground Railroad," she thought "it was gonna be a subway. But it wasn't."
Standing in the middle of the wide front porch at the meetinghouse was a group of African American women who had just met each other that day. When asked to reflect on the morning's events, Ruby Herring excused herself to get her younger sister, Margaret Powell, to contribute, too.
"I live down the street, and I didn't know this place existed," said Tyeisha Schoolfield, 32. "I was planning to go to Cincinnati to see the Underground Railroad Museum there" -- until she found out that she could do the same thing in her own back yard.
"I like anything having to do with slavery," said Powell, 42, as she joined the group. "It's my history, and I'm interested in knowing about it."
Schoolfield, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, nodded but interjected, "I don't like the way it's taught at school."
Powell, a nurse who lives in Silver Spring, agreed. She remembers being "ashamed" in elementary school when her class studied the Civil War and slavery. She lived in New York and was one of the few black children in her class, and she felt exposed and "embarrassed" in class. She cringed, wishing the lesson would end soon, she said.
"All you saw," remembered her sister Herring, a 53-year-old teacher who lives in the District, "was a man tied to a tree being whipped."
"We came from nothing," said Robyn Raysor, 56, a grants manager who lives in Silver Spring. Raysor grew up in New York, too, and remembers the lessons she learned about her history in school: "We were the only people who brought nothing" when they came to America.
They leaned in close, a huddle of well-dressed women in suede, elegant leather and color-coordinated weekend outfits. Herring described her 15-year-old daughter, who hadn't wanted to come on the morning hike and asked, "'Can't I just watch something about it on PBS?'
"They are so far removed from it" -- the slave experience -- "and life is so sweet now," Herring said disapprovingly.
But in other ways, young people still feel their connection to Emancipation Day and the events in American history that created it. Herring said her daughter is, in many ways, quite the activist. When a Best Buy store near her school, Georgetown Day, was accused of harassing black students and on one occasion banning them from shopping inside, even as white students were allowed in with no questions, the girl got angry and agitated. When Best Buy's chief executive flew in to town to discuss the issue, Herring's daughter met with him.
The executive apologized to the students.
Just before the group of walkers boarded a shuttle back to Woodlawn Manor, Herring and Raysor described how they had just met on the trail but had discovered that when they drive home to New York on Interstate 95 -- which follows the general route of the Underground Railroad -- they find themselves "thinking of slaves running . . . in the cold, in the dark, with dogs chasing after them."
The historical day -- in which people dropped in and out of events, some doing all and others one or two -- wound up at Oakley Cabin, where reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry stood at attention, living history portrayers cooked hot cider and corn bread over an open fire in the back yard, and Emancipation Day creator and historian Anthony Cohen, who introduced the annual celebration, described the first time he saw Oakley Cabin, in the mid-1990s, shut off by a 16-foot-tall fence.
"It spoke to me," said Cohen, who was working for the Montgomery County Park and Planning Department at the time, "transmitted a message: 'Get this fence down. I have a story to tell.' " Cohen, who created the Germantown-based Menare Foundation to document and preserve Underground Railroad safe houses and environments, wound up helping county historian Michael Dwyer restore the cabin.
On Saturday, children rushed in and out, looking at the bedroom under the peaked roof upstairs, marveling at the open hearth inside and shouting at each other from the open windows to the back yard. Adults huddled under the low ceilings and marveled at how people lived -- were forced to live -- once upon a time.
"History isn't a story you find in a book," Cohen concluded. "It's not necessarily something you discover on the History Channel. You have to go out and commune with it."