In search of slave resistance, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

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You guys recall that show, “In Search of” with Leonard Nimoy? What a great series (even though it was probably an inspiration for that later pile of rubbish,  Ancient Aliens).

Anyway . . . more travel blog today:

Last month after leaving Philadelphia (where we visited the new Museum of the American Revolution) our band of history nerds travelled south by going through Delaware and the Maryland Eastern shore. Our ultimate destination was Yorktown’s new American Revolution museum, via the Virginia Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. This once again allowed us to skip the hell that is I-95 (after we got out of the Philly metro area) enjoying a rather pleasant drive through a mix of suburban sprawl and rural countryside.

The bigger reason for this route, however, was to locate Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, visit some of the sites on Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway, and check out the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We stopped for the night at a really well-kept Best Western in Denton, Md. which is very near the neighborhood of Douglass’s early youth.

The site of the famed abolitionist’s birth has long been marked with a roadside historic marker on route 328 near Easton, Md, as well as a nearby bridge dedicated to him.  The marker was probably placed there to catch traffic on the heavily traveled US 50 (and from which a road sign leads you the short distance down route 328 to the marker), but in reality it is 4-6 miles away from the actual spot— which is on a secluded farm with very little traffic (even local). If you’ve stopped at this highway marker before, I hate to tell you, it’s not really very close to the real spot.

Douglass himself visited the area in 1878 looking for his birth site, and indicated it was on a farm near “Tapper’s Corner.”  This is the intersection of Lewistown Rd. and Maryland Rt. 303. At birth, Douglass was owned by Aaron Anthony (or “Captain” Anthony, as Douglass names him in his autobiography, and who might have actually been his father), who had a small farm in the shadow of the enormous nearby Wye Plantation (which dominated the region). Many of the slaves on the Wye Planation were apparently bred on Anthony’s farm and later sold to the larger plantation, which is the case with Frederick Douglass. He was born in his grandmother’s cabin on the Anthony farm.

Census records indicate that if you are standing at Tapper’s Corner looking east, you’re looking at what was Anthony’s farm (today it is called No-No Acres). The northern side of the farm is bounded by a creek that had a grist mill on it (the remnants of which are still highly visible when you drive by). When Douglass was there in 1878, he identified the probable location of his grandmother’s cabin as being at the head of a heavily wooded and un-tillable ravine which runs into the Tuckahoe River (which forms the eastern border of the Anthony farm).

The farm house that stands on the property now was not there when Douglass was born, but was when he visited in 1878. The farm is privately owned, so after getting our bearings at Tapper’s Corner,  we approached the owner and asked if we could walk out to the head of the ravine (which was apparently called “Kentucky” in Douglass’s day). He was a very nice man that has received this request before, so he happily gave us permission. Luckily, he’d recently cut a path all the way around his hay field, so we were actually able to carefully drive a circuitous route around the field out to the head of the ravine.  Nice.

It is important to keep in mind that the identification of the spot is a product of Douglass’s memory as an older man, recalling a farm he lived on only until he was about 8 years old. (And upon which he experienced the only connection to his mother, as she sometimes slipped off at night from another planation twelve miles away just to slip into the cabin and sleep next to her child for a few precious moments before walking back).  Thus, it might not actually be the precise location of the cabin. However, it is still pretty cool to be on the ground that he felt pretty sure was the spot, and even if it’s not correct, these are definitely the fields that his grandmother toiled on as an enslaved laborer. That in itself is pretty amazing to contemplate as you stand in the fields.

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“X” marks the spot. Mississippi University for Women Assistant Professor Jonathon Hooks (left) and myself standing near the spot that Frederick Douglass identified as his birth site.

The entire area has changed extremely little from the time Frederick Douglass was enslaved here, and is still very secluded (probably the reason why the marker was never placed in the area), as we saw only one or two other cars (and they were locals) the whole hour that we were snooping around.  (Seeing us pulled off the road, one truck turned around and came back just to see if we were OK). If you want to “feel” the past, this is a remarkable spot for it. It was one of the more emotional experiences that I’ve had while visiting an historic site.

If you’d like to go to the location yourself, I highly recommend viewing this website for information and help. It is invaluable. And PLEASE, keep in mind that this is private property and that you need to ask for permission to get out into the fields.

After this highly moving experience (all the more special because we had to work for it), we drove to the Wye Planation house, which is where Douglass was sent at about age eight. At its peak in the early 1800s, this planation was well over 20,000 acres (some sources say as much as 42,000) and around 750 enslaved laborers toiled on it, making it highly profitable for the white masters (by far the area’s largest slaveholding plantation). It isn’t anywhere near that size now, but is still in the same family, thus it is privately owned and can not be toured. We were disappointed that the house sits at the end of a long private drive that has signs on it clearly discouraging sightseers. Still, it was interesting to be in the heart of a plantation that Douglass memorably wrote about in his autobiography (describing the especial brutality of the overseer as one of his first exposures to slavery’s cruelty), even if he was there only about a year before he was given to the Auld family and forcefully taken to Baltimore.  The countryside around the Wye Plantation house has also changed very little since the antebellum era.

Better still, while traveling through the region we stumbled along another gem (thanks to Maryland’s Civil War Trail signs). We stopped at historic St. Stephens AME Church, about three miles from the Wye house.  Before the war, the area was near a spot where local slaves gathered to worship, and after emancipation they established the church nearby. Naming their community “Unionville,” the formerly enslaved citizens bought land cheaply from local Quakers and began farming.

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St. Stephens AME Church in “Unionville,” Maryland

The center of the community was the church, and behind it is a cemetery in which eighteen African American Union soldiers (USCTs) are buried. We couldn’t help but feel it is likely that some of these men had been enslaved on the Wye Plantation, but had “come back fightin’ men” (to quote the movie Glory). As a former park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, I was interested to see that some of the veterans had fought at New Market Heights, Virginia, where fourteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the area around the church has changed very little, so this too was a very moving experience, and I left wanting to know more about Unionville and the postwar experiences of its community of U.S. veterans and former slaves.

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Our next destination was the new Harriet Tubman museum, which acts as a visitor’s center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of roads that connect 45 sites together associated with Tubman and/or the Underground Railroad. Even before finding Douglass’s birth site, we’d already visited a few of these places, including the Caroline County Courthouse where captured runaways and alleged conductors (like Hugh Hazlett) were jailed, the Choptank Riverbank site where a runaway named Daniel Crouse gave the slip to a pack of dogs and crossed in a canoe, and Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House, where local Quakers coordinated efforts to help runaways.

Finally reaching the museum in Church Creek, Maryland, we found this area too is vastly untouched by time, which is one reason the location was chosen near the fields Tubman grew up in as an enslaved child and young adult. The building itself is rather nice and has all the gloss and shine you’d expect from a brand new facility. The small museum features few relics, however, relying on the effective presentation of interpretation. This is nicely done, as I was struck by how successful it was at delivering solid and thought-provoking history, yet also providing kid-friendly interpretation.

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Displays offer a solid overview of Tubman’s biography, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, introducing themes explored in more detail at sites along the trail. One display that stands out is a listing of the names of people that Tubman is known to have helped rescue from slavery. Despite its rather out-of-the-way location, we were pleased to find a healthy number of visitors filling the museum and parking lot.

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We were sad that the museum’s film is not yet ready for viewing, but we had an engaging conversation with a Maryland park ranger who stuck around even after closing to talk with us about Tubman, and an area in which she herself had grown up. We even got so deep in conversation that we talked with this African American woman about modern race relations, why many blacks are often reluctant to want to learn or talk about slave history, and how many whites refuse to accept that the legacy of slavery still infects and shape’s our society and culture.

Yet the best part of the hunt for Tubman came afterwards.  The farm she grew up on is but a short drive away, and again takes you through fields that are untouched by time. We located the site of the Bucktown Village Store, where a reproduction of the building stands at a crossroads in the middle of farm land.IMG_20170520_180655734.jpg

Here as a young girl Tubman had perhaps her first moment of overt resistance. While she was in the store, an enslaved man that did not have permission to be there was caught by his overseer, who then ordered the young Tubman to help him tie-up the fugitive. She refused (a remarkable act of defiance by a young enslaved girl) and the enslaved man then tried to run. The white man grabbed a two pound weight and threw it at the absconding slave, but struck Tubman instead, gashing her head open. The injury plagued Tubman the rest of her life, as she was prone to blackout spells that came and went unexpectedly, perhaps a reminder of her young act of overt defiance.

We also visited more sites associated with Quakers that helped runaways, and another Choptank River crossing spot on the Underground Railroad. Yet perhaps most emotionally compelling was the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it is believed that Tubman met with enslaved individuals who were contemplating escape.

It was getting late in the day when we arrived at this spot, a cool breeze was blowing, and it was here that I think I most connected with Harriet Tubman. I imagined her meeting under the cover of darkness and amongst the graves with folks that might have still needed to be inspired by her determination and bravado in order to overcome their legitimate fears. The courage it took to try and escape slavery is more than the average person possesses, and I was moved while standing in a spot in which Tubman infected others with her uncommonly large reservoir of bravery.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery. None of the current headstones date to antebellum America, but it’s still a powerful spot for connecting with Tubman

Once this amazing day came to an end, we all agreed that the travel experience had answered many questions for us about Tubman. Visiting the sites, it becomes abundantly clear that much of her Underground Railroad success was due not just to her, but to a strong and defiant community of both free and enslaved African Americans, as well as a large and active population of white Quakers in the region, who together created a highly efficient and effective network on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Those of us that enjoy visiting historic sites know that there is nothing like standing on these spots to help connect with the past, to “feel” the presence of our forebears, and to understand their experiences.

Which points to a truth: We need to preserve more sites like these and interpret them properly. Yes, the fact that we had to work to find Douglass’s birth site, and stumbled upon the Unionville Cemetery,  made the experience all the more special, but sites like these need to be in the hands of more state and national parks. The Tubman Byway and the new Reconstruction Era National Monument park in Beaufort, South Carolina are hopefully just the beginning of efforts to mark and interpret such locations.

Think of all the land that we have that tells the story of the Civil War. What if we had an equal number of sites that interpreted slavery and resistance to it? Or Reconstruction? So much could be learned and “felt” about both topics at even small places like Unionville.  Sadly, most surviving antebellum planation homes are in private or local hands, filled with guides still hashing out romanticized versions of the Old South and the Lost Cause.

While it is true that an increasing number of sites are more fully developing interpretations of slavery (good recent examples are James Madison’s Montpelier, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Nat Turner visitor center and trail is in the works, though progressing slowly), we need more places like the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, where the entire focus is centered on the enslaved community.

With the recent cancellation of WGN’s Underground (by the way, the show’s producers had been at the Tubman museum just a few days before we were there), I’m afraid that Harriet Tubman and the many other heroes of the Underground Railroad will become less highly visible again, as will the plight of the enslaved and their resistance.

Let’s become less worried about tearing down Rebel monuments, and more active in marking, memorializing, and interpreting our sites associated with slavery and emancipation, so more people in more places can have experiences like my friends and I had on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These stories need to be told and these lives and decisions understood.

I’ve spent untold hours visiting Civil War battlefields and antebellum sites, but this experience of traversing these battlefields of survival and resistance to slavery is one that I’ll long remember.

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Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.

 

 

 

 

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