For 45 minutes I felt transfixed by a museum exhibit focused entirely on a simple, driven black woman who refused to accept the scourge of slavery as an impenetrable part of American life in the mid-19th century. Through guile and gumption, in the 1850s, she helped 70 people flee the Eastern Shore for freedom in the north.
By now, many of us have learned how “Tubman ensconced herself in the anti-slavery networks in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, where she found respect and the financial support she needed to pursue her private war against slavery on the Eastern Shore,” according to Dr. Kate Clifford Larsen, author of Bound for the Promised Land, a biography about Harriet Tubman.
In her shrewd use of Underground Railroad; this extraordinary woman used disguises; depended on reliable people who hid her; walked, rode horses and used wagons; sailed on boats and rode on trains; used certain songs to mark danger or safety; used letters written for her by others to send to trusted allies as well as personal communication; bribed people; followed rivers coursing their way north; used the stars and other natural means to lead her north and had faith in her instincts and God to support her crusade.
For me, the museum bore similarities to the much larger and more complex United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. I’ll explain.
For several minutes, I sat on a bench at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek in Dorchester County. Seated with me was a bronze statue of Harriet Tubman, as I listened to people like the Civil Rights-era icon and United States Congressman, John Lewis, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin and others commend Tubman. It was funny, but I kept looking at the statue, engrossed in the moment, moved by the inanimate object on the bench.
Strange emotions can overcome you, unexpectedly.
As I sat on the bench, I remembered visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum, sitting in an unadorned room and listening to the “voices of Auschwitz.” I was equally moved by the power of the moment. I didn’t expect to be so utterly engaged.
The Holocaust Museum chronicles horrendous mental and physical slavery, unprecedented depravity and enormous, senseless death. American slaves died too, often at the hands of their merciless masters, or from malnutrition. Deaths of slaves didn’t matter, except to their families.
The voices that emanated from a small video at the Tubman Visitor Center—and the beautifully designed and somber exhibits– portrayed steel-like courage—and described a person who refused to be shackled by an inhumane system prevalent in our young country. Harriet Tubman set an example with no intention to do so.
Still fixated on the nexus between the slavery that stained our freedom-loving nation and Hitler’s systematic campaign to eradicate Jews, I believe that plantations too were work camps that forcibly and cruelly employed and repressed untold numbers of African-Americans. Life on plantations stilled spirits and deterred dreams.
While plantations may not have had prison-like barbed wire fences, the barriers for escape were invisible and insidious. Those who escaped faced death and persecution. They were considered mere chattel.
Harriet Tubman had incalculable willpower. Once her days as an invaluable conductor for the Underground Railroad ended, she served as a nurse, scout, cook and spy for the Union forces during the Civil War. She even participated with 150 black Union soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment in the Combahee River operation to destroy several estates owned by leading secessionists and free roughly 750 people. One of the more powerful exhibits captures this dangerous mission.
Living eventually in Auburn, NY, Tubman became involved in suffrage and civil rights activism.
Often an impatient visitor to museums, I found the Tubman visitors center soul-searchingly absorbing. I highly recommend it.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.