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Harriet Tubman honored with a park, visitor center and byway near her birthplace

Nearly 200 years after her birth, Harriet Tubman, who led escaped slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, was honored over the weekend with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center near her birthplace in Dorchester County.

The $22 million park on the edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, was eight years in the planning. Then-President Barack Obama named the site a national monument in March of 2013, the 100th anniversary of her death. The visitor center rises from the marshes, fields and woodlands that still look much as they did during  Tubman’s life.

Chris Elcock, one of the building’s architects, said it was designed it to incorporate the idea of a  “story that moves” between underground railroad stations.

The barn like forms you seen when you arrive at the site are what you would expect to see “in this region of the Eastern Shore,” he explained.

“But they are all connected by this link. This link takes you from south to north.  And so it’s the most obvious metaphor for the Underground Railroad journey.”

At the end of the exhibit a glass wall faces north.

“You see the destination to the north and the idea that metaphorically that is safety,” said Alan Reed, a principal of GWWO architects, the firm that designed the site. He said the path through the exhibits frequently veers in different directions because as Tubman escaped “it was never a direct line north.”

“She was continually going off the path to various stations,” he said. “So in that way it was a literal connection to the way she moved…in that it was circuitous and ultimately brings you back to the north.”

Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the Harriet Tubman Historical Site, lead reporters through the visitor center the day before it opened to the public on Saturday. She said her favorite part of the center, which tracks Tubman’s life as an underground railroad operative, is a section depicting Tubman laboring as a slave alongside free blacks.

“And it shows Harriet Tubman leading her two oxen and they are dragging timber down one of the canals,” she said.

Crenshaw's favorite section of the center, showing Tubman working alongside free African Americans in Dorchester County.

Tubman worked in the timber fields with her father from whom she learned survival skills. The exhibits say she hired herself out to other landowners in the region to plow farm fields and haul timber, paying her master a fee for the privilege.

Crenshaw says the exhibits are designed to be immersive. For example, the water in one of them “looks like it’s moving,” she said. “You can see her arm is outstretched. And she has a stick to guide her oxen.”

Developing relationships with people she could trust and becoming comfortable moving through the marshes at night helped Tubman as she lead escaped slaves to freedom, Crenshaw said.

“She learned how to read the stars from the black jacks in the shipbuilding towns and that was pivotal to make her successful conductor on the Underground Railroad.”

Quotes from Tubman appear on the walls of the center and sculptures depict her deeds and the challenges she overcame.

One of the last displays before leaving the visitor center.

Kate Clifford Larson who wrote a book about Tubman and was a consulting historian on the park and byway sites said many are uncomfortable talking about slavery.

“They’d rather see themselves in the role of the Underground Railroad agent than the slaveholder or the enslaved,” she said. “But I think that this is a very moving experience, it’s something that everybody should come and see.”

A group of African American Civil War re-enactors representing the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the all black unit that was the subject of the 1989 movie “Glory,” was there as well.

A group of African American Civil War re-enactors representing the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The all black unit that was the subject of the 1989 movie “Glory.”

“We like to say we represent the very end of the Underground Railroad had it got to us black guys in blue uniforms,” said Mel Reid, one of the re-enactors from Washington, DC. “Think about this: there were guys in plantation; two weeks later we are in blue uniforms.”  

He said it’s a reminder that although Harriet Tubman’s legacy was extraordinary, there are countless untold stories of African American heroes of that era.