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Bound for The Promised Land

Retracing the footsteps of runaway slaves

As published in U.S. News


I stand before a simple metal sign on the side of a little-traveled road that winds through lonely fields on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Harriet Tubman: The `Moses of her people,'" it reads, "found freedom for herself and some three hundred other slaves whom she led North ..." It marks Tubman's birthplace and the start of my six-day journey to retrace her 650-mile Underground Railroad route to the promised land of Canada.

The Trackless Train. The Emancipation Car. The Mysterious Track. There were many names for the various paths to freedom, which wended through the Northeast and Midwest to Canada, and headed south to Mexico or Florida, the jumping-off point for a boat trip to Caribbean islands. From 1830 to 1865, the Railroad's peak years of operation, a coalition of antislavery activists, both black and white, spirited fugitive slaves along the secret routes. The term Underground Railroad was supposedly born of a slave owner's remark that a runaway had disappeared as if he had "gone off on some underground road."

For over 100 years, the landmarks of the Underground Railroad have languished in obscurity. But scholars, historians, and now the National Park Service are seeking to preserve and share them. In 1990, Congress called on the park service to commemorate the Railroad. Eventually, travelers may be able to follow a driving tour from restored historic site to restored historic site. But at the moment, you must plot your own journey. Much like the Railroad's passengers of old, a modern-day wayfarer will come to rely on "conductors": a network of tour guides, historians, and descendants of escapees who keep the story of the Railroad alive.

Since Harriet Tubman was the Railroad's greatest conductor, I chose to explore her mid-Atlantic path. My bible was the Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad by Charles L. Blockson (Hippocrene Books, 1994, $16.95), a guide to the legacy of the Railroad, from markers to museums.

I began my journey in Cambridge, Md., a small city on the Choptank River just a few miles from Bucktown, Tubman's birthplace. At first, Cambridge seems a quaint community, with antebellum homes and streets paved with cobblestones from England. With the help of the Harriet Tubman Organization, I gained a different perspective. The group runs HomeTowne Tours, which offers an informative video presentation about Tubman in its Cambridge office as well as bus tours of the city and environs ($5 adults, $3 children, for groups of fewer than 25; 410-228-0401). For $25, a guide will ride in your car. My escort noted that the old courthouse once hosted slave auctions and that hundreds of bondmen and bondwomen were unloaded from ships and placed on the block at what is now the waterfront park of Long Wharf.

Ghanaian roots. Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross, Tubman's parents, were second-generation slaves, owned by Bucktown farmer Edward Brodess. Their Ashanti grandparents were stolen in 1725 from what is now central Ghana. One of 10 children, Tubman was born around 1820 and given the name Araminta (although she later took her mother's name).

In 1849, Tubman heard rumors that she and two of her brothers were to be sold to a chain gang in the deep South. "I had reasoned this out in my mind," she said. "There was one of two things I had a right to--liberty or death." She is said to have walked by the window of a house where her parents were working, singing "When that ole chariot comes, I'm going to leave you, I'm boun' for the Promised Land...."--a lyrical alert that she would soon be leaving in pursuit of freedom, following the North Star and using the moss on the northern side of trees as a guide. That night, hiding under a load of vegetables in a wagon and aided by a Quaker woman, Harriet Tubman began her first trip on the Underground Railroad, headed for Philadelphia.

Traveling by night on that first flight and on subsequent treks northward, Tubman followed the "Drinking Gourd," a code name for the North Star. She walked along the Choptank River into Delaware, a slave state, and through Dover, Smyrna, and Blackbird. I stopped in the well-preserved town of Odessa, where Tubman frequently rested at the brick Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House, built in 1793 and still standing on Main Street. (Contact Historic Houses of Odessa, 302-378-4069, to sign up for a tour; fees vary.)

Each of Tubman's trips was perilous. In 1850, the U.S. Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered slave traders and bounty hunters to enter free states and recapture fugitives. The bounty on Tubman swelled to more than $40,000, but she was never caught. Lest a rescue operation be jeopardized, Tubman carried a six-shooter, ready to fire at any frightened or weary escapee in her care who was tempted to turn back. She used to tell the refugees, "Children, if you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going." She never had to use the gun.

For Tubman and her runaways, Pennsylvania was the first taste of freedom. Across the Mason-Dixon Line that divided the free and slave states, Pennsylvania was a center of Railroad activity. I visited Longwood Cemetery in Chester County, the final resting place for prominent abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents. Located within the Longwood Gardens complex, the graveyard is adorned with antebellum-era monuments to Quaker and Mennonite operators in an area that earned a reputation as a "hotbed of abolition." The Brandywine Valley Tourist Information Center provides materials for a walking tour of the cemetery and also maintains a display (10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; free; 610-388-2900) that is modest but information packed, with Railroad documents, photographs, and memorabilia.

Tubman's knock. Tubman often stopped in the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown, arriving under cover of night. She would knock on the door of Johnson House, which still stands at 6300 Germantown Avenue. "Who's there?" its residents, second-generation abolitionists, would inquire. "A friend with a friend," Tubman would reply, indicating she had escaping slaves in tow. My guide at the Johnson House explained how slaves were often hidden in the "outbuilding" behind the property or in the attic "dorm" rooms. After receiving food and refuge through the daylight hours, runaways were either covered with carpets and straw and smuggled on wagons or hidden in boats that traveled the Wissahickon Creek. The Johnson House, which served as an Underground Railroad stop from the 1830s through the 1850s, is now undergoing renovations; it will reopen in September. Call (215) 843-0943 at least two weeks in advance to arrange a tour; the fee has not yet been set.

My next stop was Philadelphia, which, with its large community of abolitionists and free blacks, could be called the capital of the freedom movement. Ironically, the City of Brotherly Love had a history of hypocrisy when it came to the races. Carolyn Michael-Adams, owner of Tour of Possibilities, explores the conflict on two-hour tours ($15 per person; 215-877-7004). She showed me where slaves were once auctioned off--near where the Liberty Bell is displayed--and told how the city's Old St. George's Methodist Church tried to force black worshipers off their knees at the main altar and into segregated balconies.

When the black congregants got up from their knees, they kept walking--out of the church. They set up their own place of worship in a nearby blacksmith shop; its anvil was their first pulpit. A new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in 1787 at Sixth and Lombard streets. Today, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church stands on that snatch of land. The church was a major station of support and supplies like food and clothing for Tubman and others on the Railroad. The current building, constructed in 1890, is the fourth. The congregation offers tours of its building, relating the history of the denomination. The basement gallery has church artifacts, including pews from the first structure. Call (215) 925-0616 for a free tour.

From Pennsylvania, Tubman followed the Hudson River to Albany, Troy, and Syracuse and through the Finger Lakes region of New York. I was bound for Auburn, however. Though not a stop on the Railroad, Auburn was where Tubman had her final home. During the Civil War, she had spied and scouted for Northern forces, penetrating enemy lines, leading raids, and freeing slaves. William Henry Seward, who served as secretary of state under President Lincoln, was unable to persuade Congress to compensate Tubman for her service, but he did provide financial backing that enabled her to move into a house in Auburn.

From Pennsylvania, Tubman followed the Hudson River to Albany, Troy, and Syracuse and through the Finger Lakes region of New York. I was bound for Auburn, however. Though not a stop on the Railroad, Auburn was where Tubman had her final home. During the Civil War, she had spied and scouted for Northern forces, penetrating enemy lines, leading raids, and freeing slaves. William Henry Seward, who served as secretary of state under President Lincoln, was unable to persuade Congress to compensate Tubman for her service, but he did provide financial backing that enabled her to move into a house in Auburn.

In chains. I picked up the Underground Railroad trail once again, heading to Buffalo. There, my last U.S.-based agent, Kevin Cottrell, greeted me wearing the tattered clothes and chains of a runaway. Cottrell works for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and also has his own company, Motherland Connextions (716-282-1028). He conducts tours of the Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Canadian Railroad stops and also leads a Georgia-to-Canada expedition about once a year.

In Niagara, Cottrell and I paused at the base of the Whirlpool Bridge, the latest incarnation of the historic trestle that Tubman and her charges crossed to Canada. Back then, it was a wood suspension bridge with planks laced together by cords. Towering above a raging Niagara River, that rickety old bridge must have been an awesome sight.

Once across the bridge, Tubman had 25 more miles to go--the distance to St. Catharines, final depot on her Freedom Trail. Many of her passengers settled in that Ontario city, and Tubman herself lived there for eight years. At Salem Chapel, Tubman would give final thanks for a successful mission. Rochelle Bush, a descendant of "freedom seekers" who ran away from South Carolina in 1844, greeted me at the well-preserved, 142-year-old church and shared the triumphant history of St. Catharines' community of freed men and women. She charges no money for her tours: "We don't want to turn the church into a den of thieves." The church phone number is (905) 682-0993.

As I left St. Catharines, I remembered reading these words spoken by Tubman: "I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. I think slavery is the next thing to hell." It was a long journey, even by car. But somehow, now that I have made the trip, my own freedom seems that much more heavenly.

Selected African-American Historical Resources on the Web
The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture. This exhibit marks this noteworthy and singular publication. It is the first Library- wide resource guide to the institution`s African-American collections.
African Missouri, U. of Missouri-St. Louis. Supplies links to information, articles, and narratives about the State`s history. Includes text of slave narratives (4), a good overview from Official Manual, State of Missouri.
54th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Co. Records on the original troop and today`s re-enactors. (African American soldiers in the Civil War in S. Carolina)
Persistence of the Spirit: Afro-American Experience in Arkansas
Records of the 105th U.S. Colored Troops Transcriptions of manuscript letters. Charleston, SC
Third person, First person: Slave Voices from The Special Collection Library, Duke U.
Lest We Forget - the Untold History of America. By Bennie J. McRae, Jr.
Harriet Tubman Home Web Site. Auburn, NY
The Underground Railroad in NYS
Full service travel agency that specializes in the Caribbean, SPAS, Cruises, Honeymoons and Special Event Packages.
The Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York
History and Geography of the Underground Railroad
Photographic tour of the Calvin Hale Home- Underground Railroad Stop in Eaton Rapids, MI
History of the St. James African Methodist Church and the Underground Railroad in Erie, PA
Images of Columbus Ohio Underground Railroad Sites
Historic Context for the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad in Iowa. Article reprinted from 1973-74 Iowa Official Register
Underground Railroad Summary
Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The Underground Rairoad- The Story, The Places, The People
Directory of Underground Railroad Operators....Organized by State and County
Historians Burke and Perdreau discussing the Underground Railroad in Southeastern Ohio
an article
This is a story about the escape of a family to freedom
This is a story about the escape of a family to freedom
Conducting underground railroad research
Trace the underground
Underground railroad in Kentucky
Underground railroad in Kentucky
African American market research intiative of the Southern Tier of New York
Conference May 22, 1999 - description & directions.


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