International Underground Railroad Month in Maryland, Part II: “A State Located at the Intersection of Slavery and Freedom”

Q&A Compiled By Ennis Barbery Smith, MHAA Assistant Administrator  

“Growing up…. in my mind, Maryland was firmly part of the Union, but Maryland is also below the Mason-Dixon line, and so what does that mean? It’s a state located at the intersection of slavery and freedom, a state that never seceded from the Union…. The people of Maryland had mixed allegiances… And that made it a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity.”

– Mark Thorne, Historic Site Manager for the Josiah Henson Museum and Park

In Part II of this blog series, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) staff continue the conversation with six experts working on Underground Railroad history across the state. Read Part I of the conversation here for more on the experts’ backgrounds and their recommendations for where to visit.

Posts like this one guide visitors through Woodlawn Manor’s Underground Railroad Experience Trail. Photo by MHAA staff

For Part II of our conversation, we asked three questions:

1. What is something about Maryland’s Underground Railroad history that surprised you?

Mark Thorne, Historic Site Manager at the  Josiah Henson Museum and Park, answered:

 “If you look at the fact that one of the largest slave markets in North America was in Washington, DC at one time, and – around the same time – Baltimore had the largest of concentration of free Blacks in the country. So think about that: both of these places in close proximity, and Maryland allowed slavery but was located right across the border from freedom in Pennsylvania until the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. That is also part of why Maryland was such a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity. And then there’s the fact that many in Maryland wanted to secede. Annapolis was occupied by Union troops [in 1861], and the Governor moved the special legislative session to Frederick, Maryland. Some of the legislators called for a vote to secede. [Maryland] was essentially an occupied state, occupied by federal troops.” 

“As a native Washingtonian, I didn’t really understand a lot of that history, that Maryland was debating whether or not to secede from the Union… All of this is Underground Railroad related: the role of slavery in Maryland; the fact that you had Quakers here, who as a group agreed to disavow those owning enslaved persons, that would have helped those seeking freedom; that you had ports in Maryland where those who escaped were able to often find work on ships and to escape via the waterways and ships. It’s the total history of the institution of slavery in Maryland and how it resulted in Maryland as a hotbed of those looking for self-emancipation that keeps surprising me.”   


Herschel Johnson, curator for the Stanley Institute and volunteer for the  Harriet Tubman Museum, answered:

“One thing that surprised me has been about my own family history and how it is connected with the Underground Railroad. I first thought that no one was enslaved in our family, but I later found out that wasn’t true.”  

Mr. Johnson described how his great-great-grandmother Sarah Young had been listed and freed in the last will and testament of Henry Nichols of East New Market and how a man named Samuel Green was also granted freedom, five years after Nichols’ death, in the same document. William Still documented that Samuel Green’s son, Samuel Green Jr., was one of the many enslaved people of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to whom Harriet Tubman gave directions about how escape to freedom. Read more here on Samuel Green Sr.’s life, including details about how he was imprisoned for possessing a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin


Diane Miller, Program Manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, answered:

“I realized a couple years ago how many really prominent figures in the 19th century African American community came from Maryland and were freedom seekers: Harriet TubmanFrederick DouglassJosiah HensonJames W.C. PenningtonHenry Highland Garnet, and the William Still family came from Maryland, although he [William Still] was born in New Jersey. [Maryland] was an incubator, I think, of African American leadership in the days of the Underground Railroad.” 

This quote form Harriet Tubman is highlighted in the exhibits at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek. Photo by MHAA staff

Julie Gilberto-Brady, Manager for the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, answered:

“I continue to be amazed by the stories of the people who worked tirelessly and secretly to do what was right, to overcome the scourge of slavery. These people risked their lives over and over, and the strength of their convictions is inspiring. There is so much history – so close to home. One example that comes to mind is the story of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Amby, who was enslaved by Dr. Alexander Bayly in Cambridge and escaped to freedom in 1857 with her husband and thirteen others. As part of the virtual and augmented reality tour we are developing to enhance the Underground Railroad Audio Guide, a reenactor has portrayed Lizzie Amby at that pivotal, suspenseful moment, just as she would have been deciding to run away. The new tour is supported in part by an MHAA grant.” 


Bruce Russell, Board President for the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, answered:

“Two things: How central this general area [the upper Chesapeake Bay region] was to the escape routes [for enslaved people seeking freedom]. How much of what is known [about this history] is [known] through oral history and tradition. Also, how much is unknown [because] secrecy and staying below the ‘radar’ was what black freemen, white abolitionists and others needed to succeed and survive. We have so many questions. The more we research, the more questions we have.” 


Anthony Cohen, founder of the Menare Foundation, answered:

The sheer number of both historical and natural sites and resources associated with Underground Railroad history in Maryland still surprises me. Looking at the Network to Freedom, 80 Maryland sites are listed, perhaps more than any other state.” 

2. How has Underground Railroad history shaped the way you think about places and landscapes in Maryland?

Mark Thorne answered:

One of the things that my perspective has really changed on [since learning more about the Underground Railroad] are the waterways – not just the ports in Baltimore – but if you look at all of the smaller waterways too. For instance, the Anacostia Watershed, that water flows to the South, and that was used as a way for people to travel and navigate… The small tributaries lead into big rivers. People could use them as a great way to walk and not be noticed, to avoid leaving your scent for animals to follow.”


Herschel Johnson answered:

I believe if Harriet Tubman could come back today, that landscape around the Little Black Water River would be almost the same that she would have seen as a child. If you go toward the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, then the Little Black Water is on your way to the Bucktown Village Store. When Harriet was a child – and she would have been called Araminta Ross then – she had to go to the muskrat traps there around the Little Blackwater River. If a muskrat was caught in the trap, she had to run back home to tell her family. If she didn’t get back in time and the muskrat got away, she would be punished, and a muskrat would gnaw its foot off in order to get out of the trap to get away. So she had to be fast.”

A paddler enjoys the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Diane Miller answered:

One of the things that comes to mind when I ponder this question is the geography of Maryland: the vast differences between the Eastern Shore and the western part of the state. One facet of Underground Railroad history that has not received enough attention generally is the maritime connection… A lot of the work that had to be done on the docks, working with cargo, and even serving as sailors on the ships – a lot of that was done by African Americans, some enslaved and some free. So, the maritime industries were a way of connecting people across the geography, sharing information, and also assisting people in escaping. The importance of the waterways and how many escapes happened by boat really struck me since I’ve been living here [Maryland].”  


Julie Gilberto-Brady answered:

“I grew up in Virginia and felt like I had learned the history of the East Coast well in school, but there is so much more to know that I didn’t realize I didn’t know until I moved here [Dorchester County] and was immersed in it. Every time I visit a new place, I can’t help but stop and reflect on how I am literally walking in the footsteps of people who did so many heroic things generations before me. It makes their lives – their trials, tribulations, and achievements – more real.” 


Bruce Russell answered:

“It has never made sense to me that no one ever connected the many ‘dots’ in this area [the Upper Chesapeake Bay]. The Havre de Grace Maritime Museum’s new exhibit will highlight the roles that the Susquehanna River and the Bay played for enslaved people who escaped and the roles these waterways played in the forced transport of enslaved people by those who trafficked them. Our local stories extend to Baltimore and north and east to Philadelphia, New York and Canada. This area was a crossroads.” 


Anthony Cohen answered:

“Some background about me to help answer this question: In about 1994, I was doing my senior thesis at American University, and I traced a documented Underground Railroad route in Montgomery County, in Sandy Spring. At the time, not much was written about Underground Railroad routes. There was interpretation about some individuals with Underground Railroad ties – Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman – but not much on the organized system of escape. So the paper I wrote became a booklet, and I started interpreting that history, doing talks at public schools for example. In 1996, I decided to actually take a journey to recreate a route of escape. I started in Sandy Spring. Maryland and went all the way to Buffalo, New York, where I crossed the river into Canada. I mostly walked but also used other transportation that would have been available at the time: trains, even a horse-drawn buggy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, driven by a Mennonite man whose great grandfather had shown him the route that he used to use to transport freedom seekers to safe houses. Parts of my trip, I spent feeling like I was ‘floating,’ because I kept having experiences like that one.” 

“The roads we use today, if they date back to the 19th century, in my research I keep finding that they were mentioned in the narratives of people escaping slavery. For example, Route 355, Rockville Pike, that was called ‘The Montgomery Road’ in the narratives. The C&O Canal, the Potomac River, B&O Railroad, and the North Central Rail line out of Baltimore, they also kept coming up in the narratives of freedom seekers.”

“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.” 

Woodlawn Manor’s Underground Railroad Experience Trail highlights the types of landscape features, such as water crossings, that freedom seekers would have encountered and used in their journeys. Photo by MHAA staff

3. What books or other resources do you recommend on the topic of Underground Railroad history in Maryland? 

Mark Thorne recommends both Josiah Henson’s autobiographical work and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He said that both works are incredible, but cautioned readers to be prepared that both can make for difficult reading.

“The truth is not easy to digest. That’s the reason why Harriet Beecher Stowe had to write her second book [The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin] because slaveholders continued to blast her book as fiction, and her reason for writing the original book was to inform people about the conditions [of slavery in the United States]… The second book was in defense of the first.” 


Herschel Johnson recommended a book called Bound for the Promised Land:  Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson, a children’s book called DK Biography: Harriet Tubman by Kem Knapp Sawyer, and a collection of works by William Still documenting the first person narratives of those escaping to Freedom on the Underground Railroad.  

“As you ran away, you would go from one safe house to the other until you reached Philadelphia. You would meet William Still in Philadelphia, and he kept records: your name, where you came from, how you got there. He tried to record everything he was told by the people who escaped.” 


Diane Miller urges everyone to visit the Network to Freedom’s website for a curated listing of resources, sites, and events – both virtual and socially distanced. She shared that virtual visitors can even get downloadable passport stamps for their National Park Passports by taking part in virtual tours of a number of sites in Maryland that are part of the Network to Freedom, including the C&O Canal in Williamsport, Catoctin Furnace Historic Site, Ferry Hill Plantation, and more.  


Julie Gilberto-Brady, in addition to the Harriet Tubman Byway’s audio guide, recommended the audio tours available from Visit Dorchester:

“We’ve gotten so many calls from people who are seeing the civil unrest in our nation and seeking to understand the history of what came before, of the struggles for freedom, starting with Underground Railroad history and up through civil rights. Many of the buildings on the tours may be closed, but the narration is engaging. There are reenactments by talented actors and firsthand oral accounts from people who lived the history, who can say in first person, ‘I was there.’  The tours include the Pine Street Tour, all about African American heritage, and the Chesapeake Mural Trail, which includes the ‘Take My Hand’ mural, featuring Harriet Tubman.” 


Bruce Russell recommended the Dorchester County Historical Society’s and Maryland State Archive’s articles  about Patty Cannon, who kidnapped enslaved people and free Black people around the area of the Delaware-Maryland border and sold them to plantations farther south. Among other sources, he recommended Stealing Freedom Across the Mason-Dixon Line by Milt Diggins. An overview of Diggin’s book is provided here   


Anthony Cohen recommended that people read A Shadow on the Household: One Enslaved Family’s Incredible Struggle for Freedom, a book by Bryan Prince, about a family in Montgomery County and their efforts over a decade to get their family members out of slavery. The Menare Foundation will also have a new resource coming out in 2021, a book entitled Great Escapes: Journeys on Maryland’s Underground Railroad. It has been funded in part by Heritage Montgomery and will include historical accounts plus recommendations for driving, bicycling, and walking routes across Maryland. 

Note: the views expressed in this blog belong to those who kindly agreed to be interviewed. As a state agency, the Maryland Historical Trust does not endorse any specific businesses or publications. 

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