The Eastern Shore of Maryland harbors plenty of contradictions — some towns are playgrounds for the yachted rich, while some have homes with peeling paint and sagging porches. Rural landscapes slam into Panera-anchored shopping centers. Amid the wind farms and produce stands, it’s easy to forget that much of the Eastern Shore was a thoroughfare on the Underground Railroad, and its most famous conductor spent her early life in and around these marshes. Harriet Tubman, a Maryland native, not only escaped from slavery herself, but also escorted other slaves north to freedom along the network of secret routes, churches and safe houses. Tubman returned to Maryland — risking her own freedom — multiple times, ultimately leading around 70 people out of bondage, according to historians. The opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center this weekend gives Tubman’s legacy a bright new home in Dorchester County, but there’s more to discover at the end of the two-hour drive from D.C. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a free driving tour, allows visitors to explore the area surrounding the new center and find a new way back into history.
Follow her lead
My family and I sit in our CR-V while the sounds of a slave auction echo through the car. We’re parked in front of the Dorchester County courthouse in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It’s a spot where slave auctions were a common occurrence — the docks where the ships arrived are visible at the end of the street. It’s also the third stop on the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a self-guided tour that lets anyone with a smartphone travel the paths that Tubman did.
The audio guide blends narration, interviews with experts and powerful re-enactments to build a picture of African-American life during the era of slavery and the years after the Civil War. (It’s available for iPhone and Android at harriettubmanbyway.org/audio-guides.)
The app narrates our way through Cambridge and out to the country, where we stop at the Stanley Institute, a one-room schoolhouse that educated the African-American children of the Eastern Shore until 1966. The school, which is open only by appointment, is closed on this late-February day, so my husband boosts my 8-year-old son up to peer through the windows into the dimly lit space, with two rows of desks marching orderly down the room. My son (who was not crazy about spending his Sunday in the back of a car) perks up: The whole school, in one room? More confusing — black children couldn’t go to school with white children? The concept of segregation is easy enough to explain. The reasoning behind it … that’s more difficult. I’m not sure we did a good job convincing him that there were some people who thought that was the way things should be.
The Malone Methodist Episcopal Church, the eighth stop on the tour, is down a road just wide enough to pretend it’s two lanes. The church itself is gray with wear and shuttered to visitors. Though the graveyard is still in use — some of the gravestones are recent — it’s clear that very few people visit here regularly. Some of the stones are broken; the woods are trying to take back the land. We wander, studying the grave markers.
“Look at this one,” my husband says. “Do you know what those letters mean?”
U.S.C.I. I don’t. “United States Colored Infantry,” he says. Alfred Wheatley fought for a country that kept him separate from other soldiers because of the color of his skin. I kneel down to take a picture. “Hang on,” says my husband, an Air Force veteran. He leans down and fixes the American flag — the only sign of a recent visit — so it stands straight atop Wheatley’s grave.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is not Tubman-specific, but looking out over the nature preserve, it’s easy to see what Tubman had to endure on her trips in and out of the area. It’s swampy and thick with vegetation; the trails that people hike and bike and drive now weren’t there then. We stop briefly at the refuge’s visitor center (it’s time for a bathroom break, and this is one of the few restrooms you’ll find while driving) to watch the TVs showing live images captured by the bald eagle and osprey cameras and to take a spin around the butterfly garden, which my son is pleased to see is also a Pokémon Go gym. On the whole tour, it is the only spot where we see other people.
The solitude returns as we travel down the quiet roads of the Eastern Shore (it’s a good idea to have two people in the car; while the app does offer directions, they’re not included in the audio, so having someone read the directions to the driver is best). We arrive at the Bucktown Village Store, the site where an overseer threw a scale weight at a slave he was arguing with and accidentally struck the then-teenage Tubman. The injury resulted in years of headaches, narcolepsy and hallucinations for Tubman.
The whole setting seems unreal today: The little yellow building is closed to visitors and surrounded by an assortment of sheds and shacks, mundane pieces of life surrounding this almost sacred ground. We listen in silence to the story of Tubman’s near-fatal injury. After three hours or so, this is our last stop, though the tour continues for another 19 stops, all the way into Delaware (and, for those fleeing slavery, freedom). We, however, leave the ghosts behind and turn the car back to the south and to the present.
The center of it all
The concept of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center was, like Tubman herself, born in the Eastern Shore’s Dorchester County. “It’s been an effort of a group of dedicated folks in the community who have been working on this for a very long time,” says Beth Parnicza, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service. The visitor center, co-managed by the NPS and the Maryland Park Service on a 17-acre state park, celebrates its grand opening this weekend with two days of lectures, living history displays and activities for kids.
The visitor center, which contains exhibits about Tubman’s early life in Dorchester County, sits on the landscape that Tubman knew — and the designers of the building wanted you to know that.
“You’ll notice that there are a lot of windows,” Parnicza says. “We are constantly trying to tie you back to the landscape. It’s very similar to what Tubman would have seen and experienced — it’s still very much the same.”
Even the layout of the building is oriented to trace Tubman’s steps: A self-led tour winds you from south to north. But it doesn’t end there — after seeing the exhibits, visitors step into the “legacy garden.” Just as Tubman returned from free territory into slave country, the meandering path turns visitors back to the south.
4068 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek, Md.; grand opening Sat. & Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m., free (open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day).