March 10, 2017

Maryland Site Asks Visitors To Reflect On Harriet Tubman's Journey

Front exterior of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center

photo by: NPS Photo/Beth Parnicza

The forests of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are still tall and dense, the canals have gone largely unchanged, and the North Star still shines just as it did over 150 years ago.

Harriet Tubman knew the terrain well when she journeyed to her freedom in 1849 and then led about 70 others to theirs. But on March 11-12, 2017, a major change to the landscape will be completed when the area from which she fled bondage will see the opening of a museum and park honoring her legacy.

Two days of events will inaugurate the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center. History lovers will take part in educational offerings ranging from re-enactments to walking tours and creative writing workshops, and Chris Elcock, senior associate with the site’s architect, GWWO, will give a presentation on the symbolism behind the center’s design.

Visitors experience the site moving south to north, an ode to Tubman’s many journeys along the network of houses and helpers that made up the Underground Railroad to the free state of Pennsylvania.

As guests walk through the four barn-like buildings, the spaces will gradually open up until they reach the last, which represents freedom. Even the zinc coating of three of the buildings is used for its self-restoring properties, representing the healing of slavery's wounds.

The center itself features interactive exhibits on Tubman’s life and journey, as well as a garden, research center, and store. With prized artifacts of Tubman's scattered in different museums along the East Coast, the galleries mainly rely on replicas of different scenes from Tubman's life in order to tell her story.

After seeing the exhibits, visitors are encouraged to contemplate Tubman’s legacy on a three-quarter mile walking path just outside.

“It’s meant to call people to reflect on their own lives. Harriet Tubman couldn’t read, she couldn’t write, she suffered from epilepsy, and she was sort of an unlikely candidate to be able to do all the fantastic things she did,” says Amanda Fenstermaker, Director of Dorchester's Department of Tourism. “She really spent her entire life working for the downtrodden of this world, and we hope that visitors are inspired to take on some of her personality.”

The opening culminates a decades-long campaign by members of the Eastern Shore community to properly honor Tubman’s legacy.

A resource study in 2008 highlighted how similar the landscape—a mix of forest, fields, and wetlands adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge—was to when Tubman grew up enslaved and fled in 1849. A state and federal land exchange cleared the way in 2007, and six years later ground broke on the $22 million center. In 2014, Congress created the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park, of which the center will be a part.

“The landscape that one can experience is really reminiscent of what Tubman would’ve experienced when she lived here,” says Fenstermaker, who was a member of the working group that created the site’s interpretive plan. “It can really give people a sense of what her life was like.”

The center also connects to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a driving tour of various sites that played a role in Tubman’s incredible journey. And the National Park Service plans to restore Tubman’s later home in upstate New York, also part of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park.

But for the activists in Dorchester County, the opening weekend is a special and proud moment.

“From the community’s perspective, in terms of developing a story around Harriet Tubman, there have been people talking about this for 30-something years here,” Fenstermaker says. “It’s just been a bunch of people sort of holding the torch. So there’s something so meaningful when you know that the building is going to open.”

Jared Foretek is an editorial intern at the National Trust. He enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces.

jforetek@savingplaces.org

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