Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway offers self-guided tour
My husband and I Arrive at Brodess Farm in Dorchester County, Maryland in peace and serenity. The only sound is the melodious chirping of insects, birds, and other wildlife that this city couple can’t identify.
We are in Harriet Tubman’s childhood home, on the farm that once belonged to her slaver, Edward Brodess. In one way, I am in awe of the site where the mighty Tubman spent her formative years. It was there that she began to find the courage to make the dangerous and harrowing decision to escape to freedom and ultimately lead about 70 other people north as well.
At the same time, I am overwhelmed with emotion as I reflect on the savagery of this seemingly peaceful place for slaves like Tubman. It was there that she feared she would be sold to another plantation, never to see her family again, where she endured beatings and had no control over her fate.
This was the first of three October rides I would spend along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway self-guided tour. Brodess Farm in Bucktown is stop 16 on the list of 45 places. I quickly found the road too involved to make a day trip if I was really going to visit every site. Even three days left me missing a few stops (had to skip Philadelphia altogether).
I made 18 stops that first Saturday, starting at the Dorchester County Visitor Center in Cambridge, with its beautiful water views and exhibits about Maryland’s slave history. This is where I picked up a driving guide and planned my trip. I finished at the Bestpitch Ferry Bridge in Bucktown, which was closed the day I visited (at press time it was still closed for repairs). The bridge was not important in Tubman’s life, but runaway slaves boarded ferries and hid in swamps like those surrounding the bridge.
I felt the flip-flop of the emotions I felt at Brodess Farm time and time again throughout my journey. I learned the details of Tubman’s life through markers, information panels, and an audio tour as I meandered 125 miles through the Eastern Shore of Maryland and 98 miles through Delaware. A downloadable audio guide made the experience more immersive, like I was in Tubman’s shoes.
At Brodess Farm, a narrator portraying the abolitionist describes when she was old enough to be forced to work on a farm away from her family.
“The man came after me on horseback,” she said. “He put me in front of him on the horse and we left.”
She quickly missed her family.
“I used to sleep on the floor in front of the fireplace,” she said. “And here I am lying and crying. Oh, I’m crying.
That first day too took us through Cambridge to the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden in the heart of the city, across from a grocery store and down a busy street. Charles Ross, a descendant of Tubman, painted the mural of her which is on the site. At the nearby Dorchester County Courthouse, where Tubman’s niece Kessiah and her two children escaped from the auction in 1850, my husband and I descended the steps to where the auction auction was taking place – and where a concrete block is, although it is not known if it is the original. We then went to Long Wharf, where slaves were once sold along the waterfront, now home to pleasure boats.
I spent most of my time that first day at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in downtown Cambridge. The Race Street storefront museum is a little worn but has a down to earth vibe that I was drawn to – and the museum was one of the best parts of the visit. I met volunteers who had fought for decades for more recognition for Tubman, and took a photo next to a mural as if holding the heroine’s hand. I listened to a jazz band and watched a museum-sponsored lantern parade for local children. Lanterns once identified homes that were safe for runaway slaves.
The museum has endured even after the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center opened in 2017 near Church Creek. The 10,000 square foot visitor center has all the basics of a modern museum, including a theater with films about Tubman and brilliant exhibits of her life, from her childhood to her service in the Civil War. An outdoor nature trail recalls the woods and swampy areas that Tubman once navigated in the dark of night to avoid capture.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge also reflects this terrain with its forests and marshes. I felt like an impostor as I followed Tubman’s path in the comfort of a car.
Throughout my visit, I noticed how historic churches, cemeteries, and other landmarks are immersed in the community—in some cases, businesses and homes are right next door. I was worried about the preservation of these pieces of history, but I was also impressed that people treat them as a sacred place.
Another memorable part of that first day was seeing the Bucktown Village Store, a restoration of the building where Tubman was knocked down by a 2-pound weight thrown at a runaway slave. It was closed due to the pandemic, but a peek through the windows revealed a commercial setting that looks like it might have been in Tubman’s time, complete with slavery-related artifacts . His refusal to help capture this slave would have been his first act of resistance.
The following weekend, my husband and I started in Delaware. We stopped at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington and saw a beautiful sculpture of Tubman. The park overlooks the Christina River, near where she was trapped while hiding from slave hunters.
Three stops were closed when we arrived: the Center for African American Heritage in Wilmington, the New Castle Court House Museum and the Old State House in Dover, where Samuel D. Burris, a free conductor of the Black Underground Railroad, was arrested, tried and sentenced. . I decided to come back at a later date, making a mental note to check opening hours in advance.
Picking up where we left off in Maryland, we passed Scott’s Chapel in Bucktown, which doesn’t offer public access but is worth a view from the outside. Brodess loved it, and Tubman might have done the same.
At the Webb Cabin in Preston, once owned by a free African American farmer, I lifted the boards to see the “potato hole”, a small space where slaves were hidden while trying to avoid be captured. I became claustrophobic just thinking about being stuck in such a tight space for hours, if not days. We ended the day at the Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House in Denton, a Quaker site that was friendly to slaves.
The following Saturday, my mom accompanied me as I completed the Maryland leg of the tour and revisited the Delaware sites that were closed the first time around. I could have stayed a few hours at the 440-acre Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Maryland, which offers a separate audio tour and educational programs on how runaway slaves survived in similar conditions.
I could also have spent a day hiking the trails of Blackbird State Forest in Smyrna, Delaware. “Blackbird” was one of Tubman’s landmarks, according to the route guide.
Back at the New Castle Court House Museum in Delaware, we learned the story of abolitionists Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, who were tried and convicted of violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. As I sat on a court bench listening to a tour guide talking about where judges once sat, I thought about the injustice of depriving people of their freedom. New Castle was also one of the Underground Railroad locations where Tubman stopped.
One of the joys of the guided tour was seeing small communities and parts of the state that I wouldn’t normally see. Places where tractors drive on the main road and produce stalls operate on the honor system. Many communities had taverns, antique shops, family retailers, and beautiful water views.
As the country struggles with the accuracy of its history and whether it glosses over slavery, the tour celebration of Tubman and other abolitionists was refreshing. With each mile my appreciation grew for this monumental figure, her resilience and the way she changed history.
If you are going to
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway self-guided tour map, driving guide and audio guide can be downloaded at harriettubmanbyway.org, or you can stop by the Dorchester County Visitor Center for a printed copy. I found the map difficult to navigate, but the driving guide – with step-by-step instructions and descriptions of each site – is a good resource. There are guided tours in some cities and in some museums and historic sites; they are separated from the official road visit.
Andrea K. McDaniels is a Baltimore-based writer. She plans to spend a few more days exploring the sites she hasn’t visited in passing.