Design for You: Thoughts on the New Harriet Tubman Center by Pamela Heyne

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The new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor center, on the edge of Blackwater Park in Dorchester County is a tour de force of drama and design. The heroine of the drama is Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in 1820. When she was 29 she escaped to Pennsylvania, and freedom. Yet, selflessly, she returned to Maryland 19 times and rescued 70 other slaves. These were mostly friends and family on what is termed the “underground railway.” She followed the north star to lead her followers to freedom, through fields, forests, waterways and safe houses.

The Baltimore firm GWWO Architects used the concept of traveling north as a symbol in their design for the Center. A “spine” leading north unifies a series of simplified barn like, LEED certified structures which contain a bookshop, ancillary spaces and most importantly exhibits describing Harriet’s life. Bronze sculptures by Maryland artist Brendan O’Neill Sr. are compelling…lifelike, yet because of the material, these figures have a grandeur. They avoid the kitsch aspect of so many other historical exhibits whose figures sometimes resemble giant dolls.

A particularly compelling statue for me was an image of Harriet as a child, forced to catch muskrats in the winter, wading in the water coatless and barefoot. Quotes of Harriet are interspersed in displays, showing her intense sadness as a child, crying for her mother’s bed, which in reality was not a bed at all but a wooden pallet. Yet, her resilience and bravery shine through the displays. We even see her guiding Union soldiers during the Civil War,

Projections also display poignant images from the time, babies being sold while mothers wept, newspaper ads for runaway slaves, and a slave child tending to a beautifully dressed white child. Harriet was able to rescue all but one sister. She carried a pistol with her, sometimes to inspire other escapees who were getting cold feet. As she said, she never lost a passenger, and the train never got off track. We learn also that she eventually settled in Auburn, New York, yet kept working to help others.

Image of Harriet catching muskrat

In a phone call with Senator Ben Cardin, the Senator expressed just how moving it was for him to see Tubman so gloriously celebrated. He said the center “will help people understand Tubman’s courage, and her relevancy today.” He mentioned that the project actually began with a request by Senator Sarbanes. Legislation passed to make it into a national park. Local problems were worked out, and Maryland provided numerous resources. Other key national players along with Sen. Cardin were Sen. Mikulski, Sen. Gillibrand, Sen. Schumer and President Obama.

I asked Senator Cardin just why the Center was placed at the entrance of Blackwater Preserve. He said, “You can learn about Harriet Tubman, then go see soaring eagles.” In her own way, Harriet, a petite woman, was a soaring eagle. Our area now has an inspiring new tourist attraction, amplified by a scenic driving tour, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Scenic Byway.

Pamela Heyne is an architect, head of Heyne Design in Saint Michaels, Md., and author of In Julia’s Kitchen, Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child. For more information about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor center please go here

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