Q&A Compiled By Ennis Barbery Smith, MHAA Assistant Administrator
“The Underground Railroad followed both natural and man-made transportation routes, many of which are still around us today. I see the Underground Railroad everywhere in Maryland, but in its modern form. We think of the safe houses and documenting those, but the process, the journey, that is where Maryland can excel in providing unique tourism experiences, where people can actually walk, bicycle, and drive on those very same routes, in those same landscapes.”– Anthony Cohen, Menare Foundation
September 2020 marks the second annual International Underground Railroad Heritage Month, recognizing the places and people that played important roles in Underground Railroad history. For this two-part blog post, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) staff spoke with six of the many people across the state who steward and champion this history, not just in September but year-round. We asked them to share insights and to recommend a few places and resources that Marylanders and visitors should take note of as this month’s observance comes to a close. (Please note: as a state agency, the Maryland Historical Trust does not endorse any specific businesses mentioned here. For a more comprehensive list of Maryland’s Underground Railroad resources, please visit the Maryland Office of Tourism.)
For this first blog post, we asked one question:
Where should we go to learn about the Underground Railroad in Maryland?
Mark Thorne, Historic Site Manager at Josiah Henson Museum and Park, recommended two Montgomery Parks sites, each exploring distinct facets of the Underground Railroad story. The Josiah Henson Museum and Park, when it opens later this year, will share the story of Reverend Josiah Henson, who escaped to freedom in Canada, established a settlement there, and lead over 100 others to freedom. Located within the boundaries of Heritage Montgomery, the museum and park occupy the site of the farm where Henson was enslaved by Isaac Riley before he fled on the Underground Railroad. This newly established site is expected to open by 2021 and has received grant funds for exhibits from MHAA.
Henson’s story as a conductor on the Underground Railroad is well documented largely because he authored an autobiographical work about his life, and Harriet Beecher Stowe used this work as source material for her widely circulated work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“He [Henson] came back into the United States to rescue enslaved people many times, meaning risking himself, risking his livelihood and his own life to free those 118 people over multiple trips… Dresden [also called the Dawn Settlement, which Henson established in Canada] could almost be considered an ‘Eden’ for those [formerly enslaved people] that made it there because – not only did he take them in – but he also taught them trades… He gave them a start in life. Part of his entrepreneurial story is about the walnut furniture that he was making at his township from his mill. He purchased this property, he started up a saw mill, started making furniture, and then the furniture was so incredible that he was invited to exhibit at the first World’s Fair, and that’s how he met the Queen of England, Queen Victoria.”
Mr. Thorne also recommended visiting Woodlawn Manor and Cultural Park. The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but the grounds, including the Underground Railroad Experience Trail, are open to the public, free of charge. On Saturdays this fall, guided hikes of the trail are offered for $6 per person. The capacity of the hikes is limited, and hikers must follow social distancing guidelines. Interested visitors should sign up in advance online. If families want to walk the trail on their own, they can download the trail map.
The trail leads visitors through the types of landscapes that freedom seekers in Maryland would have navigated on their journeys, highlighting natural features, such as a hollow tree [pictured here], that were often used by those escaping slavery in Maryland.
Herschel Johnson was born and raised in Dorchester County, a region now known as the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, who escaped to freedom and eventually rescued about 70 others from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Mr. Johnson serves as curator for the Stanley Institute, a one-room African American school that was founded just after the Civil War, and volunteers with the Harriet Tubman Museum. Mr. Johnson also offers personalized, social-distanced tours of both the Stanley Institute and other Underground Railroad sites in the area. The Stanley Institute has received a number of African American Heritage Preservation Program grants over the years.
Mr. Johnson recommended that, when they re-open for visits, both the Maryland State Park Service’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek and the Harriet Tubman Museum located on Race Street in Cambridge are must-visit sites to learn about Tubman’s story. The visitor center received an MHAA grant for their grand opening event in 2017.
“The Harriet Tubman Museum on Race Street was originally established because some of the relatives of Harriet Tubman wanted to share the history as early as the 1990s – that’s when they got the building – and there you can get a more personal history of Harriet Tubman because the docents there, when they’re open again… when they talk about Harriet Tubman, they make it personal.”
Mr. Johnson also recommended the Stanley Institute, which is currently open by appointment only, the Bucktown Village Store, and the Little Black Water River for its evocative landscape that would have been similar to how Harriet Tubman experienced it.
Diane Miller, Program Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, was part of the team that developed interpretive exhibits for the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center in Church Creek. Ms. Miller recommended that people drive the Harriet Tubman Byway in Dorchester and Caroline Counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“There is a really excellent audio guide that gives interpretation as you’re driving through the landscape. You can download and listen to it on your phone. It’s excellent storytelling, very compelling, and I think it’s a great driving tour you can do, especially in this era of COVID. You don’t have to get out and go into buildings, many of which are closed right now. But you can still get almost as much out of it just driving the landscape and listening to the stories.”
One site in particular along the Byway that Ms. Miller highlighted was Adkins Aboretum and their self-guided tour entitled A Journey Begins: Nature’s Role in the Flight to Freedom.
“They [Adkins Aboretum] have done an excellent job of talking about how Freedom seekers moved through the landscape and types of plants they might have used or how they might have used the terrain to hide, and they did most all of it with quotes from formerly enslaved people’s narratives and first person accounts.”
The arboretum tour was funded in part by the Maryland Heritage Areas Program. The site’s grounds are currently open from dawn to dusk.
Julie Gilberto-Brady, Heritage Area Manager for the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, works closely with a number of sites in Dorchester County that highlight the region’s Underground Railroad history. One of the heritage area’s nine themes focuses on Harriet Tubman and Eastern Shore African- American History.
“The Underground Railroad history is without a doubt something that sets us [Dorchester County] apart from other places in Maryland because of the unique stories of escape and heroism that happened in this region, but – at the same time – this is shared history because it connects us to other Underground Railroad sites in Maryland and across the country, all part of a vast network of sites.”
Ms. Gilberto-Brady recommended that visitors seek out a new temporary sculpture installation, a 9-foot, 2,400-pound bronze sculpture entitled “Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom,” which was unveiled on Saturday, September 12, in front of the Dorchester County Courthouse and will remain on display until October 9, 2020. The sculpture is pictured below.
“This amazing sculpture, by internationally recognized artist Wesley Wofford, is traveling through the United States this year, and we really are thrilled to be able to support this project with a Heritage Area mini-grant to the Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation, the organization which coordinated the arrangements for the sculpture’s stop in Cambridge.”
Ms. Gilberto-Brady also recommended that visitors plan to see the new Black Lives Matter Mural on Race Street in Cambridge, near the Harriet Tubman Museum. She explained: “The mural is not something that will always be here. The paint is expected to fade, but it reflects our times and how our community responds to our times, and it highlights Underground Railroad history because of the people depicted. The local artist, Miriam Moran, created the images inside each of the letters representing Underground Railroad and civil rights icons with a connection to Cambridge or the Eastern Shore. The images include Harriet Tubman, Gloria Richardson, Frederick Douglass and Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley. Another letter reflects the design of the Maryland flag, and another was signed by all the volunteers who came together to work on the mural. After the mural was completed, someone vandalized it with their truck, burning rubber on the mural. The driver later turned himself in and then joined the volunteers back at the mural where he helped to repaint and repair the damage.”
Bruce Russell, Board President for the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, has been leading the organization’s project to create and install a new exhibit that will focus on Underground Railroad history on the Upper Chesapeake Bay and in the broader watershed. The museum is located in the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, and has benefited from MHAA grant funding for the exhibit.
Mr. Russell explained that the museum had been planning a full weekend of grand opening activities for the new exhibit, but this will now be delayed until people can gather safely. The grand opening will be promoted widely once a date is set. People may still visit the museum now on a limited schedule. Social distancing and masks are required. Stay tuned for details on the upcoming exhibit.
Anthony Cohen runs the Menare Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve the legacy of the Underground Railroad. The Foundation has received funding from MHAA for emergency operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Cohen recommended visiting Button Farm Living History Center, a hands-on history center located on Maryland State Park land in Germantown and one of the Foundation’s active projects. Mr. Cohen added that the farm raises heritage breed animals and historically accurate 19th Century crops.
“It’s [Button Farm] all based on a sensory experience we first created for Oprah Winfrey when she prepared for her role in the film Beloved. We also interpret the journeys of the Underground Railroad at the site and beyond.”
Button Farm has been closed to the public during the pandemic but has just re-opened to limited capacity using a reservation system.
Mr. Cohen also highlighted another project of the Menare Foundation, Chesapeake Tours, which offers interpretation at a variety of historic sites throughout Maryland. He recommended that the James Webb Cabin in Caroline County and the Bucktown Village Store in Dorchester County are a couple examples of sites that visitors may want to experience, either as part of a guided – outdoor, social-distanced – experience or using the Harriet Tubman Byway’s audio guide.
More Sites to Visit
In the Southern Maryland Heritage Area, sites interpreting Underground Railroad history include Historic Sotterley, recognized as a UNESCO Slave Route Site of Remembrance, and Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, among others.
Even more links to Maryland’s Underground Railroad sites and resources are compiled on the Maryland Office of Tourism‘s website.
In part two of this blog, we will share the same experts’ responses on the following topics: things that have surprised them about Underground Railroad history in Maryland, how this history informs how they see Maryland’s landscapes, and books – and other resources – they recommend for those seeking to learn more.