“Walking in Harriet Tubman’s and the ancestors’ footsteps, along the sweat- and blood-soaked ground, changed my life forever!” exclaims Linda Harris. “So much so that I bought a house in Cambridge, Maryland, and now I work at the Tubman Museum,” adds the director of events and planning at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center.
Maryland is celebrating the Bicentennial of Harriet Tubman’s birth the entire month of March and beyond, especially in Dorchester County, along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she was born and enslaved. Though there’s no birth certificate, it’s believed that the Underground Railroad’s (URR) most famous conductor was born Araminta Ross in March of 1822 and died March 10, 1913.
The Tubman Byway
“Maryland is widely recognized as ‘The Most Powerful Underground Railroad Storytelling Destination in the World,’ boasts Maryland Office of Tourism managing director, Liz Fitzsimmons. “[We] partner with the National Park Service's Network to Freedom program to spotlight sites, programs and tours that present authentic stories of the places where the enslaved escaped from bondage, the routes they took, places where they stayed or found assistance, and sometimes places where their freedom was tried and tested. Within this national program, Maryland has the most documented successful escape stories,” she says.
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In fact, Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway was awarded the highest federal designation of “All-American Road” in 2009. “The URR starts as far south as Mexico and goes all the way up to Canada,” says Harris. “People think Harriet started it, but it actually started in 1831 before she was born,” she adds.
“And what makes Harriet Tubman unique is that she escaped to freedom in 1849, but she went back 13 times to get her family and other enslaved people and took them north to freedom. She was able to help free nearly 150 people,” Harris explains. “And during the Civil War, Harriet worked for the union and freed 300 enslaved soldiers,” she exclaims.
Harris says she didn’t learn this in school but learned it when she visited the Tubman Museum in Cambridge and found out about the Tubman Byway, which runs from Maryland through Delaware and into Pennsylvania. The 67-year-old retiree was looking to exercise outdoors since the gyms were closed, but once she learned about the Byway, she decided to walk the more than 125 miles from beginning to end.
Following Harriet’s Footsteps
“I trained all summer and did the Byway walk September 1 through 6 of 2020,” Harris explains. She started a “We Walk with Harriet” Facebook page to get more people interested and ended up with seven other African American women walking with her. And with two women driving a van to follow them, they walked 158 miles from Brodess Plantation, where Harriet was enslaved in Dorchester County, to abolitionist William Still’s house, who worked with Harriet in Philadelphia.
“And every step of the way, I felt Harriet’s spirit,” remembers Harris. “I could hear the dogs barking, I could hear the horses' hooves, I could hear her saying, ‘We’ve gotta keep moving,’” she emotes. Harris even felt Tubman’s spirit when she experienced some frightening situations.
“We were walking out of Caroline County almost into Delaware with our ‘We Walk With Harriet’ signs, and we passed this farm full of Trump signs and confederate flags and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags, and that startled me,” notes Harris. When they stopped in a field to take a break and eat, a white man told them to get off his property, and when they went a mile further to rest, they were told to keep moving by a policeman who kept his hand on his gun. They were also called the “N” word by a trucker as they walked.
“Now, if we’re going through this in 2020, I can just imagine what Harriet dealt with in 1849,” Harris laments. But they were greeted with fanfare when they reached Kennett Square in Pennsylvania. “That’s a very pivotal location for Harriet Tubman because it’s where she first realized she was finally free and was helped by the Quaker community,” says Harris. She adds, “The Quaker community is still active there, and they followed our journey on my Facebook page and gave us a huge celebration where the mayor and city council came.”
Celebrating Harriet Tubman and History
Her Byway walk made Harris so passionate about telling Tubman’s story that she started making the one-and-a-half-hour drive from her home in Mitchellville, Maryland, to Cambridge to volunteering at the Tubman Museum three days a week. In fact, her free labor helped keep the museum, which is run only by volunteers, from closing for good.
“In the summer months, we get about 2,000 visitors a week, and we’re only open from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday,” notes Harris. “We have artifacts, display boards, lovely portraits of Harriet Tubman, a stamp collection with her image, two PBS-style films that cover the span of her life and a film about abolitionist William Still. But the highlight for most tourists is to take photos in front of the “Take My Hand” mural on the side of our building, which has become an international image bringing in tourists from all over the world,” she exclaims.
“And we’re always telling people about restaurants to visit, like Porter’s Soul Food, so we’re stimulating the economy. The city of Cambridge now understands that promoting Harriet Tubman and our museum is good for their tourism dollars,” she adds.
The Tubman Bicentennial is also good for tourism. And the Tubman Museum has a long list of programs throughout March, including a talk about walking the Tubman Byway, a talk with Harriet Tubman descendent Tina Wyatt, a Tubman reenactor and storyteller, and music of the URR. By the way, Harris is also a professional singer.
April starts their “Jazz at the Mural” series, and Harris also gives tours of the Black history of downtown Cambridge. “I recently took a group of college students from Minnesota and their professor down Race street and talked about the civil unrest with [civil rights activist] Gloria Richardson, [who died this year]. I walk them down High Street where Harriet Tubman’s grandmother came in from the slave ship on the Choptank River and was marched down the cobblestone streets, which are still here, and auctioned in front of the courthouse, which is also still here.
“Telling Harriet’s story of strength and courage – especially to our young people – is my purpose, and it’s helping me to be my best self,” Harris emphasizes. “Every facet of this country has been influenced by African Americans and the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors who were brilliant and fearless and intrepid. And I want us all to find the Harriet in ourselves.”
For more information on the Harriet Tubman Byway and Bicentennial events, visit the website or Facebook page. For a listing of “The Ultimate Guide to Underground Railroad Sites in Maryland” visit the Maryland Office of Tourism website.
To keep up with events at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center, visit the website and Facebook page. To see photos from Linda Harris’ walk along the Byway, visit her “We Walk with Harriet” Facebook page. And finally, to hear Harris sing the song she wrote for Harriet Tubman, “Walk to Freedom,” check out her YouTube channel.