Those dedicated to reckoning with our nation’s history but unable to devote the considerable time, stamina, and energy it’s dedicated pursuit deserves, owe a debt of gratitude to climate scientist turned enterprising author David Goodrich, and his remarkable work, On Freedom Road.
When Goodrich began commuting 13 miles by bike from his Rockville home to NOAA’s Silver Spring headquarters, his main objective was improving his health. (The fact that he was also improving the planet’s well-being may have also factored in.)
But through that lifestyle change, Goodrich learned about others practicing far-flung adventure cycling. When he retired in 2011, Goodrich, who had headed NOAA’s Climate Observations and Monitoring Program, and had also served as director of the UN Global Climate Observing System in Geneva, Switzerland, joined their ranks.
He embarked on a trip from Delaware to Oregon, which resulted in his first book, A Hole in the Wind (Pegasus Books, 2017).
Another journey, this time across the Upper Midwest and Canadian prairies, geologically known as the Western Interior Seaway, brought forth a second volume, A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean (Pegasus Books, 2020).
While both books offered on the ground insights into current ecological realities, the seeds for an altogether different two-wheeled expedition were planted during that first coast to coast journey.
As Goodrich explains in the opening pages of his third volume, On Freedom Road, Bicycle Explorations and Reckonings on the Underground Railroad (Pegasus Books, 2023):
“I was only looking for a place out of the wind. In May 2011, eleven hundred miles into a bike trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a cold, hard headwind left me tucked down on the handlebars all morning.”
At the next town, Vandalia, Illinois, an “Open” sign beckoned welcome refuge, so Goodrich warmed up in the basement of an old church housing the Fayette County Museum. While perusing musty smelling displays, the curator showed him a “heavy brass ring, so big I needed two hands to hold it,” then explained that it was a slave collar.
Although its authentication was later proven to be doubtful, the impactful initial sight of the purported artifact stayed with him.
A few years later, while accompanying his wife Concetta, a dedicated birder, to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the couple visited the newly opened Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Park and Visitors Center next door.
Along with the moving history of Harriet Tubman’s journey displayed throughout the Center’s exhibits, one item especially caught Goodrich’s eye–the map of her daunting routes from Cambridge, through Delaware and Philadelphia, up through New York, then into Canada and freedom. He knew right away it was a ride he wanted to make.
A few years earlier, on a trip to Wales to show his son the ancestral Goodrich family castle, he learned that a relative, Captain John Goodrich, had helmed a boat on the Middle Passage, in which many did not survive. That moment of reckoning was another factor inspiring him to explore the legacy of suffering and courage along the Underground Railroad.
On Saturday, April 1, Goodrich returned to the Tubman UGRR National Historical Park in Church Creek to speak about Freedom Road for the discussion program Ranger Lawson Nakwudo’s Book Review.
In introducing Goodrich, Ranger Lawson noted that over the course of four years, Goodrich rode by bicycle 3,000 miles east of the Mississippi to travel the routes of the Underground Railroad, delving into its history and stories where they happened.
The book is divided into two main sections, Freedom Road East, The Trail of Harriet Tubman, and Freedom Road West, The River, The Blues, and the Borderland.
He also invested countless hours doing painstaking background research at the Library of Congress, reading definitive works such as Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land, and tracking down vital, hard to find Underground Railroad route information, including African American historian Charles L. Blockson’s Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad.
Starting in Cambridge, Goodrich informs his readers “I knew we were on the right road when I saw the mural.” (He and riding companions Rick Sullivan and Lynn Salvo, who holds the Guinness Record for oldest woman to ride across the U.S., each touched Harriet’s iconic outstretched hand for luck.)
The Tubman Trail leg of the trek began with a 50 mile “shakedown” circuit beginning and ending in Cambridge, covering the landscape of Minty Ross’ formative years– Madison, Blackwater, the Brodess Farm, and the Bucktown Store.
Next, it was north towards Poplar Neck to find Red Bridges, the shallow Choptank River crossing spot used by freedom seekers, then into Delaware to locate the still standing Star Hill African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Dover. Originally called Star of the East, the church was erected on a little rise in 1842 in order to be visible to freedom seekers coming from Maryland, Goodrich noted.
The trio approached, hoping to at least view the famed church from the outside. But as they arrived, Sunday morning services were in progress. Trying to be unobtrusive, the three white spandex clad cyclists slipped into the back of the building. Two women from the congregation silently arose, returning with ice water for them. Later, they were offered refreshments and spoke with the church’s longtime unofficial historian, Lucretia Wilson, who believed that Tubman must have traveled through the area.
In a post Civil War interview, Tubman acknowledged the Delaware town of Blackbird, populated by several free Black communities, as being among her favored route landmarks.
Goodrich credited the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway for providing excellent tracking of Tubman historic sites throughout the Delmarva Peninsula. Further north, even in Philadelphia, the trail often “runs cold,” he acknowledged.
But the reader can travel along, discovering rich background stories of legendary figures Thomas Garrett, William Still, and many others.
Photos from the era further document the area’s Quaker abolitionist activities, including one taken in 1865 at the Longwood Meeting in Kennett Square, PA, showing William Lloyd Garrison and Conductor and Tubman friend Thomas Garrett, who has park dedicated to him in Wilmington, featuring a statue depicting him and Tubman. Another,a daguerreotype taken at the 1850 Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, New York, shows wealthy Abolitionist champion Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and sisters Mary and Emily Edmondson, who had grown up enslaved “where a golf course stands, three miles from my home in Maryland,” Goodrich noted.
In New York City, following Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom history, Goodrich again vividly shows how haunts pivotal to Underground Railroad history are often hiding in plain sight, as the book’s jacket suggests. On Nassau Street, he visits the building once home to the American Anti-Slavety Society, where Tubman, needing money, once laid down on the floor, and was ultimately bequeathed an amount far surpassing her initial request. Today, the bottom floor of the 12 story building houses an unassuming eyebrow threading salon.
Proceeding further north, through Albany and Auburn, the cyclists see first hand the marked difference in the the modest Tubman and more grand Douglass gravesites, just 40 miles apart, reflecting each one’s approach to battling slavery’s injustice.
While Tubman’s Trail might initially seem of greater interest to our area’s readers, Freedom Road West offers a wealth of information and insight to the Underground Railroad, from a slave rebellion in New Orleans up through the Mississippi Delta and a Civil War massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, one of the first places Colored Troops proved their fighting spirit.
Transcending time, Goodrich rides us through the treacherous borderland along the banks of the Ohio River, rife with fugitive slave bounty hunters, where he crossed paths with the ghost of Josiah Henson, who became Harriet Beecher Stowe’s inspiration for the main figure in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Goodrich is careful to note how markedly less dangerous their own route was than for those being hunted, at constant fear for their lives. But their modern day trek continued on relentlessly through foul weather, bleak accommodations, and in Oberlin, Ohio, a persistently unshakable flu bug.
Finally giving in to the need for a day’s rest, Goodrich ultimately ended up at another modestly housed museum, The Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, viewing a “magic shawl” once belonging to Harper’s Ferry martyr Lewis Leary.
The fragile cloth remnant, reverently handed down, had once cradled a Leary descendent as a baby, future poet Langston Hughes.
On Wednesday, April 5 at 6 PM, Goodrich will again be discussing Freedom Road at Chestertown’s Retriever Bar as part of The Bookplate’s “Authors and Oysters” presentations. For information call 410-778-4167.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.