The children’s book, published in 1965, chronicles Harriet Tubman’s heroic missions leading dozens of enslaved people to freedom between 1850 and 1860 through a network of secret passages and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
When Harris read it anew, the decades-old picture book left a profound impression on her.
“I felt like my freedoms had been taken away, with the pandemic and the social injustice,” said Harris, 65, who lives in Mitchellville. “The book was the impetus to do something, to act.”
She decided to visit Tubman’s birthplace, driving to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Dorchester County, Md. She spoke with local historians there, who shared insights on Tubman’s life, first when she was enslaved, then as an Underground Railroad guide called a “conductor” and, finally, as a civil rights luminary and champion of the women’s suffrage movement.
Harris got an idea: She wanted to retrace Tubman’s footsteps along the Underground Railroad, traveling by foot from Cambridge, Md., to Kennett Square, Pa. — totaling roughly 116 miles.
“I wanted to emulate her path,” Harris said.
But she didn’t want to do it alone. Harris hoped to find others who were also seeking a connection to this era of history during a period of racial unrest. She shared her mission on various Facebook pages, including GirlTrek and Outdoor Afro — organizations aimed at connecting people of color with others to engage in physical activities.
Harris formed a group of eight women who were otherwise strangers, ranging in age from 38 to 65. The women, who all live in the D.C. area, spent every Saturday in the spring and summer training together.
“We had to learn to walk long distances and build our endurance,” said Harris, adding that the women bonded early on.
“We are definitely sisters,” said Pauline Heard-Dunn, 57. “Our walks gave me something to look forward to. They gave me a sense of purpose, and it felt like a way to connect with my ancestors.”
“My friendship with these women is everlasting,” echoed Kim Smith, 56. “There’s a magnetic energy amongst us. We’re inspired to keep moving.”
As they trained, the women worked to decipher Tubman’s path, which proved more challenging than they had originally anticipated. Harris visited Cambridge several times, as well as parts of Caroline County, in an effort to map out Tubman’s route as precisely as possible.
She learned that Tubman’s exact traverse along Maryland’s marshy Eastern Shore is not entirely clear. In Tubman’s numerous treks, she is known to have traveled from Dorchester County through Delaware and finally to Philadelphia, which was part of a free state. She escaped alone the first time but, subsequently, led several more missions following the same path, risking her life to bring an estimated 70 enslaved people to freedom.
According to a biography of Tubman, “Bound for the Promised Land,” Maryland recorded 279 enslaved people as runaways in 1850 — more than any other state in the nation.
Harris consulted with William Jarmon, a docent who has volunteered at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center for over a decade. He showed her some of the historical sites along the 125-mile Tubman Byway, a self-guided tour operated by the museum, composed of 36 significant stops.
“We helped her map out her journey,” said Jarmon, adding that there has been a heightened interest in the museum in recent months.
Harris also reached out to J.O.K. Walsh, the president of the Caroline County Historical Society, who has done extensive research on Tubman’s path through Caroline County and into Kent County, Del.
“I’ve examined old maps to try to put together where exactly she would have traveled. We’ve looked at where the roads were, and we logically mapped things out,” Walsh said.
“We knew Harriet needed to avoid any populated centers and bridges where slave catchers were known to hang out,” Walsh continued. “We put all this information together and were able to take a very educated guess.”
Walsh gave Harris the contact information of a man from Philadelphia, Ken Johnston, who had reached out to him a few months before, also hoping to retrace Tubman’s footsteps through the Underground Railroad.
For the last three years, Johnston has been making civil rights-related walks: In 2018, he walked from Selma, Ala., to Memphis, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He also walked in Northern Ireland in 2019, from Belfast to Derry, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Burntollet civil rights march.
“I think everyone comes into walking for individual reasons,” Johnston said. “There is some internal call in their lives that something needs to be changed.”
Johnston started his Underground Railroad walk on Dec. 24, 2019, walking 20 miles overnight from Poplar Neck, Md., to Denton, Md., in honor of Tubman’s 1854 Christmas Day rescue of her brothers. Johnston completed the remaining 120 miles to Philadelphia on weekends — he would drive to where he left off the previous weekend and catch a ride back to his car at the end of the stretch — until finally finishing the journey Feb. 28.
He shared anecdotes and advice with Harris, pledging to join the women for parts of their walk.
The group, which calls itself We Walk With Harriet, officially started the walk on Sept. 5, traveling an average of 20 miles a day, until they reached Kennett Square, Pa., on Sept. 10.
They started a Facebook page to document the voyage, which quickly amassed thousands of followers. The women also raised nearly $6,000 for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge.
“We felt Harriet with us as we walked,” Harris reflected. “We were amazed at how this woman was able to do this, to take on such a journey while being followed by dogs and guns and people who wanted to do her harm.”
“I could practically see our ancestors in the woods; I could hear them. I could see slave catchers and dogs, and I could really imagine what it was like to be traveling that way,” Heard-Dunn added. “The more we walked, the more vivid it became.”
The group stopped at historical markings along the way, including Bucktown General Store in Cambridge, where Tubman was struck in the head with a two-pound weight, leaving lifelong damage, after she defied an order to tie up a fellow enslaved person.
“There are very few words to describe this experience,” Smith said. “It was this spiritually driven walk with Harriet for freedom. One of the most powerful aspects is this ripple effect that we’ve created, with people showing up and trying to find us.”
Along the way, the group was met with supporters who were inspired by the mission, offering food, water and messages of encouragement. They stayed at hotels at the end of each day.
“Their walk was especially significant at this time, because echoes of the past are becoming louder,” said Johnston, who joined the group for the first 10 miles and final 17 miles.
As they completed the last stretch, crossing over into Pennsylvania, nearly 200 people were there to cheer them on.
“I just broke down in big tears,” Harris said. “I was so overcome with emotion, thinking that we had made it, and thinking about how Harriet must have felt stepping across the line into Pennsylvania, into freedom.”
Upon finishing the walk, the women collectively decided their mission had only just begun.
On Oct. 9, they picked up where they left off, journeying from Kennett Square, Pa., to Philadelphia, culminating at the house of William Still — an abolitionist and fellow “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
The group’s next walk is planned for March 2021, when they intend to embark on a 54-mile march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in honor of the late representative John Lewis.
Harris, who recently retired from a 32-year career in real estate to focus on a second career performing jazz music, said she has found her true calling in the historical walks.
“This is what I’m pledging to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “Just the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other can bring awareness to so many people.”
Harris compiled her savings and retirement funds to purchase a home in Cambridge, Md., which she plans to convert into “Camp Harriet” — a recreational center for children and adults to learn about Tubman’s life and bravery.
In the spirit of educating others, Harris decided to pass along her beloved “Runaway Slave” children’s book to her 12-year-old granddaughter, so that she, too, could be inspired by Tubman’s courage in the face of injustice.
“I gave it to her to continue the journey,” Harris said. “In the hopes that she will one day do the walk herself.”
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