Summer may be the best time to visit the beach, but winter is my favorite time to visit Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Through the loblolly, many of them becoming spindlier by the day because of intruding saltwater, drivers can see the creeks, necks and rivers that define this landscape. They are the waters from which many men and women eked out a living, and which provided the tools to camouflage an escape to freedom.
In 1850, Maryland had a split personality, with parts of the Black population enslaved and parts living in freedom. In Dorchester County, on the Eastern Shore, half of the population was enslaved, and half free. Through close family ties and alliances, they helped each other find paths through the water and the woods to freedom in Philadelphia and beyond.
Black History Month is an excellent time to retrace parts of that journey. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway offers dozens of sites to connect not only with the nation’s most famous abolitionist, but also the many freedom seekers she inspired. Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Harriet Tubman escaped in 1849 at age 27, then returned to guide dozens more to freedom via the “Underground Railroad.”
Mix up your Eastern Shore trip with different venues that tell different parts of her story, and make sure you get outside even if it’s chilly. The landscape is a key part of this journey.
Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden
Before the state and federal governments invested millions of dollars in historical parks and a visitor center, there was this roadside garden and mural. Many Tubman descendants still live in Dorchester County. One of them, Charles Ross, painted this beautiful mural. It was the second one that he painted at this site — the first was vandalized. That wasn’t uncommon in the early years of Tubman tributes; vandals shot up several signs on the byway. But now residents understand that the Tubman sites bring economic development to Cambridge and the surrounding areas. There is widespread support to recognize Tubman (1822-1913) and her contributions, even though doing so shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the past.
Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center
The mural that Michael Rosato painted at this local museum was already beautiful, but it created national excitement when a local 3-year-old girl named Lovie was photographed touching the image of Tubman’s outstretched hand. Since then, everyone from children to local motorcycle bike club leaders have posed with the mural. And when he’s not commissioned to create a mural in another city, Rosato is often at the museum, available to discuss the mural and sign copies of prints. The museum is friendly, laid back and comfortable, with more of a reading-room feel than the state park 20 minutes away to the south. There are videos about Tubman’s life and times, and a small exhibit space. Be sure to take time to browse the shops in town if you stop here. Cambridge has become a culinary destination as of late. You’ll want to fuel up at Ava’s Pizzeria or RAR Brewing before your next stop.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
This distinctive building — it looks like a large, sustainably made barn — opened in March 2017 to honor Tubman’s birthday. Since then, it keeps breaking its own visitor records, drawing thousands of history-seekers each month to Church Creek and into the middle of Tubman Country. The visitor center, a joint project between the state and the National Park Service, is located at 4068 Golden Hill Road on the grounds of the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. The National Park Service plans to add a 480-acre parcel, known as the Jacob Jackson site; he was the free black veterinarian who was responsible for telling Tubman’s family that she was coming for them, and when. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway knits all of these sites together, providing a map and background information for 45 sites on a 125-mile route through Dorchester and Caroline counties.
The state park is south of Cambridge and about a two-hour drive from Baltimore, depending on traffic. Visitors can immerse themselves in the story of young Araminta Ross (her birth name) as she trapped muskrats and took ill several times as a young girl worked to the bone. Old spirituals guide visitors through the museum, as do video presentations from members of her family as well as senators and local dignitaries. Outside the museum, the landscape does not look much different than it would have in Tubman’s time. Listen closely, and you can hear the birds that called to her — herons, egrets, eagles, hawks and ospreys when the weather warmed.
This cozy arboretum was not a stop on the Underground Railroad, though both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were enslaved not far from it. The draw here is “Rooted Wisdom,” Tony Cohen’s short film and virtual experience that narrates viewers through nature as it was then — and remains now. There are still beeches, sweet gum and tulip poplars, though they are younger now. Some of the larger trees we can see were probably here then, some even earning the name “witness trees.”
Understanding nature was crucial for freedom seekers as well as those who helped them. Tubman wasn’t the only one who used the North Star to navigate; many of her contemporaries could read the sky, and used it to predict conditions along the journey. Atkins boasts more than 600 varieties of plants, and though the color won’t be popping this time of year, there is still plenty to see, including an active beaver population.
You may not be able to get into the Stanley Institute — hours are by appointment — but it’s worth the drive just to view it from the outside. Before the Civil War, it was a crime to teach enslaved men and women to read, and yet many broke this law and found ways to become literate. This one-room schoolhouse was moved to its current location across from Christ Rock Church in 1867 and it was teaching Black children to read in Dorchester County until it closed in the 1960s, as the county was beginning to integrate. Many local residents remember learning to read and write in this yellow schoolhouse, or remember hearing that their parents did. That it still stands is testament to community volunteers who wouldn’t let it go.
Bucktown General Store
Bucktown was one of the places where Tubman was enslaved. The hamlet is next to the Transquaking River, and at the center of it was the Bucktown General Store. Harriet Tubman went there to buy some goods for the home where she was enslaved. Another enslaved man had left his work without permission and ended up at the store. His overseer followed him there and asked Harriet to help him tie the man up and take him back to his master’s house. The overseer threw a 2-pound weight at his charge, but it hit Tubman instead. She would suffer headaches and dizzy spells the rest of her life because of that assault.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
In 2021, historians made an exciting discovery; the cabin of Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, was on the refuge. As a result, the land on which it sits has been relatively undisturbed, allowing for the discovery of coins and other artifacts. It’s interesting information that connects this vast natural area with the history around it. Ben Ross was a gifted woodsman, and a free man who wished for his daughters, sons and wife to be free, too. To walk or bike around the refuge is to take in the landscape that the Ross family knew, and the one that helped them reach freedom.
New Revived United Methodist Church
This church represents the merging of several Black congregations in the area. The town, Smithville, was home to Harriet Tubman’s sister-in-law, Harriet Parker. Smithville’s church still brings in 25 to 30 worshipers every Sunday, though few remain in the town. It’s a stark example of the rate at which Black communities on the Shore are losing their land and their communities as seas rise, marshes migrate, and jobs move away to more prosperous towns. A service here revives the spirits, though, and all are welcome to join.
Rona Kobell is a Baltimore journalist who has covered the region and the Chesapeake Bay for years. She is editor-in-chief of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative.