In honor of Harriet Tubman Day, March 10, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took part in the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland. The governor joined nearly 500 guests for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, including descendants of Harriet Ross Tubman, Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, and county and state officials. Harriet Tubman Day is celebrated annually, both nationally and in Maryland, on March 10.
Governor Hogan also reaffirmed his continued support for erecting a Harriet Tubman statue on the Maryland State House grounds in Annapolis, and pledged to commit any necessary funding to see the project to completion. Currently, $300,000 is allocated in the administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget for the project.
“Harriet Tubman’s contributions to our state and nation transcend race, gender, nationality, and religion, and her legacy continues to inspire others to this day,” said Governor Hogan. “This visitor center is yet another way to honor this Maryland hero and serves as an invitation to all people to learn more about Harriet Tubman and how her acts of determination, courage, and selflessness impacted our nation.”
The park grounds include seventeen acres of parkland, legacy garden, recreational pavilion, as well as the new visitor center, which contains informative and educational exhibits to commemorate the life and lasting legacy of Harriet Tubman. The state, through the departments of Commerce and Natural Resources, is working together with the National Park Service and Dorchester County at this shared site to recognize and memorialize Tubman as an American hero and civil rights icon.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is a state-of-the-art LEED-certified facility managed in partnership by the Maryland Park Service and National Park Service. It houses an exhibit hall that features immersive displays, an information desk, a research library, and museum store. The site also serves as the new headquarters for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program. Admission is free.
“Harriet Tubman began her life as a slave right here in Maryland and is now known to the world as an abolitionist, humanitarian, and hero,” said Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford. “With the opening of this impressive facility, the achievements of Harriet Tubman will be on display for Marylanders and visitors alike and preserved for generations to come.”
The visitor center serves as a gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The byway was designated in 2008 as one of the best scenic and historic driving tours in the nation. It takes visitors to cultural and historic sites in one of the most pristine 18th century agrarian landscapes in the country. The designation was a key factor in the awarding of $8.5 million in Transportation Enhancement Funds and $1.6 million in National Scenic Byway funds by the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park opened to the public on Saturday, March 11. The grand opening weekend included a variety of special programs and guest speakers.
Harriet Tubman – An American Life
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross; c. 1822 – March 10, 1913) was an American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved families and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era was an active participant in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave and hit her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She was a devout Christian and experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God.
In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or Moses, as she was called) “never lost a passenger”. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she helped guide fugitives farther north into British North America (Canada), and helped newly freed slaves find work.
When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry (The Raid was a military operation conducted on June 1 & 2, 1863, by elements of the Union Army along the Combahee River in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Tubman was working for the Union Army and guided its forces in the area. The Union ships transported more than 750 slaves freed by the raid, many of whom joined the Union Army.
After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After she died in 1913, she became an icon of American courage and freedom. On April 20, 2016, the Treasury Department announced a plan for Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson as the portrait gracing the $20 bill.
Family and marriage
By 1840, Tubman’s father, Ben, was manumitted from slavery at the age of 45, as stipulated in a former owner’s will, though his actual age was closer to 55. He continued working as a timber estimator and foreman for the Thompson family, who had held him as a slave. Several years later, Tubman contacted a white attorney and paid him five dollars to investigate her mother’s (Harriet or Rit’s) legal status. The lawyer discovered that a former owner had issued instructions that she would be manumitted at the age of 45. The record showed that a similar provision would apply to Rit’s children, and that any children born after she reached 45 years of age were legally free, but the Pattison and Brodess families had ignored this stipulation when they inherited the slaves. Challenging it legally was an impossible task for Tubman.
Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman. Although little is known about him or their time together, the union was complicated because of her slave status. Since the mother’s status dictated that of children, any children born to Harriet and John would be enslaved. Such blended marriages – free people of color marrying enslaved people – were not uncommon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where by this time, half the black population was free. Most African-American families had both free and enslaved members. Larson suggests that they might have planned to buy Tubman’s freedom.
Tubman changed her name from Araminta to Harriet soon after her marriage, though the exact timing is unclear. This possibly happened right after the wedding, or coincided with Tubman’s plans to escape from slavery. She adopted her mother’s name, possibly as part of a religious conversion, or to honor another relative.
Escape from slavery
In 1849, Tubman became ill again, which diminished her value as a slave. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. Angry at him for trying to sell her and for continuing to enslave her relatives, Tubman began to pray for her owner, asking God to make him change his ways. She said later: “I prayed all night long for my master till the first of March; and all the time he was bringing people to look at me, and trying to sell me.” When it appeared as though a sale was being concluded, “I changed my prayer,” she said. “First of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.’” A week later, Brodess died, and Tubman expressed regret for her earlier sentiments.
As in many estate settlements, Brodess’ death increased the likelihood that Tubman would be sold and her family broken apart. His widow, Eliza, began working to sell the family’s slaves. Tubman refused to wait for the Brodess family to decide her fate, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her. “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to,” she explained later, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Tubman and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from slavery on September 17, 1849. Tubman had been hired out to Dr. Anthony Thompson, who owned a large plantation in an area called Poplar Neck in neighboring Caroline County; it is likely her brothers labored for Thompson as well. Because the slaves were hired out to another household, Eliza Brodess probably did not recognize their absence as an escape attempt for some time. Two weeks later, she posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward of up to 100 dollars for each slave returned. Once they had left, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts. Ben may have just become a father. The two men went back, forcing Tubman to return with them.
Soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, this time without her brothers. Beforehand, she tried to send word to her mother of her plans. She sang a coded song to Mary, a trusted fellow slave that was a farewell. “I’ll meet you in the morning,” she intoned, “I’m bound for the promised land.” While her exact route is unknown, Tubman made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad. This informal but well-organized system was composed of free and enslaved blacks, white abolitionists, and other activists. Most prominent among the latter in Maryland at the time were members of the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. The Preston area near Poplar Neck in Caroline County contained a substantial Quaker community, and was probably an important first stop during Tubman’s escape. From there she probably took a common route for fleeing slaves – northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. A journey of nearly 90 miles, her traveling by foot would have taken between five days and three weeks.
Tubman had to travel by night, guided by the North Star, and trying to avoid slave catchers eager to collect rewards for fugitive slaves. The ‘conductors’ in the Underground Railroad used deceptions for protection. At an early stop, the lady of the house ordered Tubman to sweep the yard so as to seem to be working for the family. When night fell, the family hid her in a cart and took her to the next friendly house. Given her familiarity with the woods and marshes of the region, Tubman during the day likely hid in these locales. Tubman only later described her routes because other fugitive slaves used them.
Particulars of her first journey remain shrouded in secrecy. She crossed into Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled the experience years later:
“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
John Brown and Harpers Ferry
In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated the use of violence to destroy slavery in the United States. Although she never advocated violence against whites, she agreed with his course of direct action and supported his goals. Like Tubman, he spoke of being called by God, and trusted the divine to protect him from the wrath of slaveholders. She, meanwhile, claimed to have had a prophetic vision of meeting Brown before their encounter.
Thus, as he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by General Tubman, as he called her. Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Although other abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison did not endorse his tactics, Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves, and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the south. He asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day Southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did.
On May 8, 1858, Brown held a meeting in Chatham, Ontario, where he unveiled his plan for a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. When word of the plan was leaked to the government, Brown put the scheme on hold and began raising funds for its eventual resumption. Tubman aided him in this effort, and with more detailed plans for the assault.
Tubman was busy during this time, giving talks to abolitionist audiences and tending to her relatives. In the autumn of 1859, as Brown and his men prepared to launch the attack, Tubman could not be contacted. When the raid on Harpers Ferry took place on October 16, Tubman was not present. Some historians believe she was in New York at the time, ill with fever related to her childhood head injury. Others propose she may have been recruiting more escaped slaves in Ontario, and Kate Clifford Larson suggests she may have been in Maryland, recruiting for Brown’s raid or attempting to rescue more family members. Larson also notes that Tubman may have begun sharing Frederick Douglass’ doubts about the viability of the plan.
The raid failed; Brown was convicted of treason and hanged in December 1859. His actions were seen by abolitionists as a symbol of proud resistance, carried out by a noble martyr. In the South he was considered a madman. Tubman herself was effusive with praise. She later told a friend: “[H]e done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.”
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Tubman saw a Union victory as a key step toward the abolition of slavery. General Benjamin Butler, for instance, aided escaped slaves flooding into Fort Monroe, Virginia. Butler had declared these fugitives to be contraband – property seized by northern forces – and put them to work, initially without pay, in the fort. Tubman hoped to offer her own expertise and skills to the Union cause, too, and soon she joined a group of Boston and Philadelphia abolitionists heading to the Hilton Head District in South Carolina. She became a fixture in the camps, particularly in Port Royal, South Carolina, assisting fugitives.
Tubman met with General David Hunter, a strong supporter of abolition. He declared all of the contrabands in the Port Royal district free, and began gathering former slaves for a regiment of black soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was not prepared to enforce emancipation on the southern states, and reprimanded Hunter for his actions.
Tubman condemned Lincoln’s response and his general unwillingness to consider ending slavery in the United States, for both moral and practical reasons:
God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That’s what master Lincoln ought to know.”
Tubman served as a nurse in Port Royal, preparing remedies from local plants and aiding soldiers suffering from dysentery. She rendered assistance to men with smallpox; that she did not contract the disease herself started more rumors that she was blessed by God. At first, she received government rations for her work, but newly freed blacks thought she was getting special treatment. To ease the tension, she gave up her right to these supplies and made money selling pies and root beer, which she made in the evenings.
Scouting and the Combahee River Raid
When President Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Tubman considered it an important step toward the goal of liberating all black men, women, and children from slavery. She renewed her support for defeat of the Confederacy, and before long she was leading a band of scouts through the land around Port Royal. The marshes and rivers in South Carolina were similar to those of the Eastern Shore of Maryland; thus her knowledge of covert travel and subterfuge among potential enemies were put to good use. Her group, working under the orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, mapped the unfamiliar terrain and reconnoitered its inhabitants. She later worked alongside Colonel James Montgomery, and provided him with key intelligence that aided the capture of Jacksonville, Florida. Later in 1863, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. When Montgomery and his troops conducted an assault on a collection of plantations along the Combahee River, Tubman served as a key adviser and accompanied the raid. On the morning of June 2, 1863, Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters leading to the shore. Once ashore, the Union troops set fire to the plantations, destroying infrastructure and seizing thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies. When the steamboats sounded their whistles, slaves throughout the area understood that it was being liberated. Tubman watched as slaves stampeded toward the boats. “I never saw such a sight,” she said later, describing a scene of chaos with women carrying still-steaming pots of rice, pigs squealing in bags slung over shoulders, and babies hanging around their parents’ necks. Although their owners, armed with handguns and whips, tried to stop the mass escape, their efforts were nearly useless in the tumult. As Confederate troops raced to the scene, steamboats packed full of slaves took off toward Beaufort.
More than 750 slaves were rescued in the Raid. Newspapers heralded Tubman’s “patriotism, sagacity, energy, [and] ability”, and she was praised for her recruiting efforts – most of the newly liberated men went on to join the Union army. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at the assault on Fort Wagner, reportedly serving him his last meal. She described the battle by saying: “And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
For two more years, Tubman worked for the Union forces, tending to newly liberated slaves, scouting into Confederate territory, and nursing wounded soldiers in Virginia. She also made periodic trips back to Auburn, New York, to visit her family and care for her parents. The Confederacy surrendered in April 1865; after donating several more months of service, Tubman headed home to Auburn.
Troubles continue after the War
During a train ride to New York, the conductor told her to move into the smoking car. She refused, explaining her government service. He cursed at her and grabbed her, but she resisted and he summoned two other passengers for help. While she clutched at the railing, they muscled her away, breaking her arm in the process. They threw her into the smoking car, causing more injuries. As these events transpired, other white passengers cursed Tubman and shouted for the conductor to kick her off the train.
Despite her years of service, she had never received a regular salary and was for years denied compensation. Her unofficial status and the unequal payments offered to black soldiers caused great difficulty in documenting her service, and the U.S. government was slow in recognizing its debt to her. Tubman did not receive a pension for her service in the Civil War until 1899. Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and her difficulties in obtaining a government pension were especially taxing for her.
As Tubman aged, the seizures, headaches, and suffering from her childhood head trauma continued to plague her. At some point in the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Unable to sleep because of pains and ‘buzzing’ in her head, she asked a doctor if he could operate. He agreed and, in her words, “sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable”. She had received no anesthesia for the procedure and reportedly chose instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as ill and penniless, prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.” When she died, Tubman was buried with semi-military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is located at 4068 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek. MD 21622. Entrance to the Center is free and open daily. For more information, contact dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands.
William S. Connery lives in Alexandria, VA and is a frequent contributor to the Courier. He is the author of two History Press books: Civil War Northern Virginia 1861 and Mosby’s Raids in Civil War Northern Virginia.
-By William S. Connery
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