Preserving Chesapeake Heritage: Navigating the Tubman Landscape amid Rising Tides

By Jessica Brannock, Communications Intern

In 2007, roughly 17 acres of wetlands within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were dedicated to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad (HTUR) State Park. These lands and waterways where Tubman lived and worked as a young woman, enslaved by the Brodess family, make up just a fraction of the 25,000 acres of land in Dorchester County dedicated to the HTUR National Monument. While the park’s Visitor Center offers exhibits on the life and heroism of Tubman, the true monument to her legacy is the landscape itself—and it’s disappearing.

Over the course of a decade, Tubman returned to this landscape 13 times and guided 70 slaves to freedom. Hiding in the marshes by day and traveling by foot and boat at night, Tubman and other freedom seekers relied on their knowledge of Chesapeake waterways, plant, and animal life to survive the journey north.

Visitor Center

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, LEED silver certified, and constructed on higher ground to protect the building against rising sea levels.

Today, much of the wildlife found in the brackish tidal marshes and hardwood forests of Blackwater NWR are typical of what Tubman encountered over 150 years ago. However, preserving these habitats and heritage is an ever-present challenge as wetlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed are threatened by environmental change.

Current water levels in Blackwater NWR are much higher than when Tubman navigated the rivers and marshes to freedom. Since the NWR’s establishment in 1933, over 5,000 acres of wetlands have been lost to sea level rise.

Marshes act as buffers between land and water, filtering out toxins and absorbing the forces of storms and tides, and Tubman would have been familiar with the tidal rhythms that flooded the wetlands with saltwater and ebbed back with the flow of freshwater tributaries. As sea levels rise, however, saltwater mingles more heavily with fresh, destroying salt-sensitive plant-life as marshlands erode and give way to flooding. By the end of the century, climate science predicts that sea levels will rise in the Bay region between 3 and 4 feet.

Saltwater Intrusion 4

Patches of bare forest and exposed tree roots, destroyed by saltwater intrusion are reminders of rising tides, and the imminent loss of habitat that follows.

The HTUR Visitor Center was constructed with the vulnerability of the landscape in mind. The building is sustainably designed to LEED silver standards and includes bioretention ponds, rain barrels, and vegetative roofs. Located near the Little Blackwater River, where Tubman worked checking muskrat traps as a child, the site was strategically elevated, placing the building on higher ground—a precautionary measure against the accelerating rate of sea level rise. With nearly 300 acres of marsh within the NWR lost each year, the wetlands could be fully submerged by 2050.

Actions can be taken to slow the loss and preserve the landscape so valuable for its habitat and history. In 2017, the Conservation Fund, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Audubon Society partnered to raise 40 acres of marshland within the NWR. This thin-layering process spread 26,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Blackwater River across the wetlands, raising the marshes by 4-6 inches. Along with large scale tree and marsh grass planting, these efforts will help reduce the pace of flooding over the next decade.

As tides rise, the landscapes that hold our heritage will continue to suffer losses to their environmental and historical resources. In the coming years, we must acknowledge environmental threats and face them head on, so that future generations may continue to experience and interpret the legacy of our national treasures.


Liberty Grace Church of God, Baltimore City – Community Outreach and a Historic Bowling Alley (Guest Blog)

By Dr. Terris King, Senior Pastor, Liberty Grace Church of God

The things that bring people together are often surprising. And so it was with a bowling alley tucked into the basement of a West Baltimore church. As the current Senior Pastor of Liberty Grace Church of God, Baltimore, Maryland, I was inspired to renovate the church’s abandoned bowling alley after reading Antero Pietila’s first book, “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” which highlights the struggle of Jewish and African American immigrants as they settled throughout Baltimore. According to Pietila, a cozy little West Baltimore neighborhood called Ashburton became the first neighborhood in Baltimore and in the nation to openly embrace integration with African Americans, Jews and whites living together. But when a church was sold to a predominately African American congregation, and that congregation closed the basement bowling alley that served as a gathering place for the community, Jewish residents and members of the Beth Tefillah congregation were among those who left the neighborhood.

Liberty Grace Church

Liberty Grace Church of God in Ashburton

Since 2015, Liberty Grace Church of God has worked to reimagine the church as a central place for community gathering, while providing community members with nutrition education and exercise in order combat obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes. It started with nutritious, healthy food delivered by the Maryland Food Bank. The church is so focused on this initiative that it established the Grace Foundation, a non-profit to lead the nutrition project and serve the community. The Grace Foundation has also successfully piloted exercise, Zumba and meditation programs. The renovation of the historic bowling alley is an upcoming stage in this larger project to increase exercise and activity levels in the community. With additional funding, the Grance Foundation hopes to renovate their facility, including an outdoor kitchen, into a teaching kitchen with classrooms for the community.

Liberty Grace bowling alley

Current condition of the historic bowling alley

With over 20 years in ministry and executive-level service in health care, I have used my dual career experience to bring nutrition education to Baltimore city. I see the church as a major asset in improving the well-being of West Baltimore’s citizens, beginning with the Ashburton community. I believe the bowling alley will be a community draw that rivals the success of the food giveaway and am excited about this building becoming the epicenter of the community once again.

Using the National Register to Connect Baltimore City Students with Neighborhood History (Guest Blog)

By Jeff Buchheit, Executive Director, Baltimore National Heritage Area

Since 2016, the Baltimore National Heritage Area (BNHA) has partnered with the Maryland Historical Trust and Baltimore Heritage (the city’s preservation advocacy organization) on a project that engages Baltimore City Public School students in an exploration of their local history using the research standards and processes necessary in developing nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. Through the project, students investigate Baltimore’s significant role in the Civil Rights Movement and the people and places that reflect this critical time in U.S. and Maryland history.


Baltimore School of the Arts students prepare for their upcoming field trip.

The heritage area’s primary role is to help teachers and their students connect to historic sites and resources for researching the Civil Rights Movement. Key partner sites have included the Maryland Historical Society and the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum, which operates under the stewardship of Morgan State University.

Initial planning meetings brought together the BNHA, Baltimore Heritage, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Maryland Historical Society, and the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum. A handful of Baltimore City Public Schools teachers were identified based on their classroom studies in African American history and the Civil Rights Movement. Those teachers attended an October 2017 workshop during which Baltimore Heritage Executive Director Johns Hopkins provided an overview of the National Register nomination process. Following the presentation, the teachers toured the collections of the Maryland Historical Society and the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum. At the end of the workshop, teachers scheduled nine field trips, five of which took place in the fall of 2017.


Baltimore Heritage’s Johns Hopkins talks to students at the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum.

Perhaps the key takeaway for the students on the field trips has been their exposure to the use of primary documents in research, and the phenomenal contributions (past and present) of Baltimore citizens in the Civil Rights Movement. The heritage area is meeting its overarching goal too: raising student awareness and pride in their history and their neighborhoods. Students have been very engaged, and the teachers are asking “What else can we do together?” — a real win-win for everyone.