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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Interpretation at Sotterley Plantation: The Road to Relevance

By Jeanne Pirtle, Education Director, Historic Sotterley, Inc.

Historic Sotterley Plantation has a long history, to be sure. It has also been open to the public as a museum since 1960.  Let’s see, what was happening in the 1960’s? Schools were still segregated. Jim Crow was still alive.  And in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Sotterley’s last private owner had decided to open Sotterley and create a non-profit so that it could be preserved.  As with most house museums at that time, the early tours focused on the furnishings and lives of the owners with a little legend, lore and myth mixed in.  After the owner’s death in 1993, ownership went to the Sotterley Foundation, which is now Historic Sotterley, Inc.

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Discovering Archeology Day!

Visitors to Discovering Archeology Day assist in the archeological reconstruction of ceramic vessels.

Visitors to Discovering Archeology Day assist in the archeological reconstruction of ceramic vessels.

Are you looking for something different to do this Saturday?  Something in a beautiful place that will be entertaining, educational, and . . . archeological??  Why not come to Discovering Archeology Day at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County?

This free all-day event (10:00AM – 5:00PM) will have you experiencing, discovering, learning and having fun while exploring the “What, where and how’s” of archeology!  There will be demonstrations and activities for budding archeologists of any age!  Tours of the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory will be conducted throughout the day.

Located at 10515 Mackall Road in St. Leonard, The Maryland Historical Trust’s Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is set on the banks of the Patuxent River.  It is a beautiful place to take a hike, or enjoy a picnic.  Visit the reconstructed Indian Village, and walk the archeological trail.

Unsettling Nuances and Uncomfortable Truths

Azie Dungey presenting at the Unsettling Nuances and Uncomfortable Truths workshop on March 17, 2014.

Azie Dungey presenting at the Unsettling Nuances and Uncomfortable Truths workshop on March 17, 2014.

Most historic sites offer educational programs to help visitors learn more about life in the past.  At their best, historic sites also provide a place for understanding, catharsis and even healing, through access to individual stories told in a broader social context. These stories are all the more important to share when they are difficult to tell and hard to hear.  Continue reading

Maryland Historical Trust Staffer Honored for Museum Work

By J. Rodney Little, Director of the Maryland Historical Trust

For 15 years, Mary Alexander has administered the Maryland Historical Trust’s Museum Assistance Program, offering all manner of assistance to Maryland’s museums, particularly those classified as small.

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Left to right: Lindsey Baker, Rob Forloney, Mary Alexander, Rod Cofield, Sarah Brophy, Allison Titman at the February 2014 SMA conference in Ocean City.

Celebrating those efforts, the Small Museum Association honored Alexander’s outstanding contributions to the field by awarding her the association’s highest honor earlier this month. The Small Museum Association Award recognizes an individual who advances funding, professional growth and information dissemination to the small museum community on a regional or state level. Continue reading