[Postcard] | Dorchester County, by Katie Ryder | Harper's Magazine

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"The injuries of slavery and its aftermath are palpable across these villages and farm communities, and the region’s relationship with Tubman’s legacy, and that of the Underground Railroad is, to the outsider, surprisingly fraught."

Bazzel Church, Dorchester County. Photograph by Clayton Rychlik

Bazzel Church, Dorchester County. Photograph by Clayton Rychlik

I first came to Dorchester County, Maryland, ten years ago, following signs proclaiming the birthplace of Harriet Tubman. I landed at a field known as the Brodess Farm, where Tubman was not, in fact, born, but lived for a time in her childhood and adolescence. It was summer then, hot and dry, and the shin-high plants in the field were brown and brittle. A stamped metal placard that had been posted by the state government in the 1960s briefly summarized the life of Tubman—“‘the Moses of her people’”—and a white farmhouse sat some distance beyond a padlocked gate.

Following the announcement in April that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the twenty-dollar bill (at an unconfirmed date in the distant future), I returned to the Eastern Shore. At the Brodess Farm, where trees now flushed green against a gray sky, a new color-printed placard designated the site as part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway—a 125-mile driving tour stretching north from Dorchester to Caroline County and up to the Delaware border. Unveiled in its newest form in 2013, the Byway features forty-two locations with historical significance to Tubman’s life or to the Underground Railroad, and is one of four recent honors for Tubman in the area, including a national monument and a state and National Historical Park in the works.

Such regional projects are long overdue. Tubman received a medal from Queen Victoria of England in 1897. And although black residents of Dorchester began pushing for her recognition in the 1980s, tourists arriving prior to the 2000s—and arguably after—found little to illuminate her legacy. Pilgrims kissed the ground at Brodess and took away handfuls of its soil, but if they were to wander past the gate to the house on the property, a hand-printed sign would greet them: “HARRIET TUBMAN DID NOT LIVE HERE!!! CRIPPLE CREEK HUNTING CAMP.” One local citizen, quoted in a 2008 National Park Service report, gave this assessment: “state and local officials have treated Harriet Tubman, and the sites associated with her, with, at best, apparent ‘benign neglect.’”

Many area residents originally saw the new historical projects as impositions. Government representatives, historians, and longtime local keepers of Tubman’s story faced substantial resistance from citizens citing privacy concerns, and from white landowners and farmers who pointed to potential safety liabilities, constraints on hunting, and tour buses plowing down narrow dead-end dirt roads, interfering with their work. Locals have also long voiced fears—since 2002, when the possibility of a National Historical Park first arose—that their properties could be seized by the government via eminent domain, or that a park would prevent them from using their land as they always have. And, though authorities have exerted significant energy over many years to explain that these concerns are unwarranted, the same issues linger, support waffles, and resistance remains.

Here, on terrain laid with marshes and swamps and etched with creeks and rivers, the boundary between land and water slips. The limit between past and present likewise blurs. Broad, spare fields along rural roads—where slaves worked crops of tobacco and grain—now grow sorghum, soy, and corn, but are often bound by the same tree lines and trenches that marked them in Tubman’s time. The footprints of forests and wetlands—where slaves hauled timber and dug canals—are also largely unaltered since the antebellum era. And the woodlands, just as they were, are filled with loblolly pines, sweetgum trees, and white oak.

Much of Dorchester’s population descended from families who resided in the area two hundred years ago and before. The injuries of slavery and its aftermath are palpable across these villages and farm communities, and the region’s relationship with Tubman’s legacy, and that of the Underground Railroad is, to the outsider, surprisingly fraught. A Northerner, I live in Georgia, where in some mania of denial, the fields and mansions of slavery are laid out proudly like the folds of a debutante’s skirt. History here is less forthcoming, though it pervades, and the land is charged with distrust.

From my first stop at the Brodess Farm, I traveled the Byway north on Bucktown Road, then headed west on a state route paved over a former Indian migration path. It was used by the Choptank people, who, despite early cooperation with English settlers, by 1668 were effectively renting their land from the provisional government in beaver skins, and by 1800 were legally considered gone from Maryland.  

I turned south onto Harrisville Road in Woolford, and, where it turned to dirt, entered a tall forest of pin-straight, densely packed trees, their trunks blackened by persistent rain. Frequent signs on both sides repeated that the woods were not to be trespassed. Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta Ross, in 1822, at the end of this road. Her birthplace, on what was then the plantation of Anthony Thompson, is now on private land and not included as a site on the Byway.

I stopped at the locked gate of a tree farm. To the left lay land that was part of the Skinner plantation in Tubman’s time and is still owned by the same family. The Thompson land was farther ahead, through the locked gate, stretching south to the Big Blackwater River, and far west. The “big house” there had remained standing through the 1970s, but it was eventually taken down and buried on the land. Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and Tubman biographer with whom I spoke after my trip to Dorchester, has been to the property many times, and she and others believe they have found where the cabin of Ben Ross, Tubman’s father, once stood. The current owners, Larson says, are “good stewards” of what’s there, but, “they have great emotional attachment” to the land, and it will remain closed to the public.  

Renna’ McKinney, whom I spoke with later, is a descendant of slaves and a relative, by marriage, of Tubman’s family. She grew up visiting her grandmother’s house on Harrisville, just before the pavement’s end, where as a child she had been wary of the southward woods. “I would always get a feeling that it just wasn’t right,” she told me. Her uncle, who still lives on the property, used to go fishing far down on what her family called Backfield—down the Skinner plantation and onto the old Thompson. He’s seventy now, the baby of his generation, and doesn’t talk about their family’s past in slavery. But way down there, at the end of Harrisville Road, he remembers seeing graveyards. The farmers who now own that land, McKinney says, might have “pushed it over, covered it all up. But he said, ‘I saw them.’” And somewhere on those grounds, McKinney believes, her great-great grandmother, who lived a slave, is buried.  

From Harrisville Road, I drove farther west to a Byway stop called Malone’s Church—a slim parcel of historically black land, fitted tightly between tracks of farm and forest, where, decades before emancipation, slaves and free blacks walked footpaths through the woods to meet and worship. Local oral tradition, in part supported by census records, has it that Harriet lived here with her first husband, John Tubman, a freeman who declined to run with her when she first escaped, and again when she came back for him two years later.

The Byway provides no financial assistance to the sites on its route, and McKinney has been working to fund the preservation of Malone’s for the last ten years, since long before she was aware of its connection to Tubman. When I arrived, the church, which is covered in gray shingle siding, was severely weathered, and one wall exposed a patchwork of makeshift insulation. Most windows were boarded up, though I was able to glimpse oaken pews and a small piano inside. Behind the church, beside a dilapidated shed wrapped in vines and filled with car tires and other refuse, were small mounds of burned trash, and farther from the road, a graveyard. In the far back of the lot, at the edge of a pine forest, were three headstones marked with the name Tubman—until recently, lost to the woods—and, on the ground, empty Remington shotgun shells.

When I asked Larson about an unease I’d felt at some locations on and around the Byway, she said, “I spent a lot of time back on those little roads, and that’s very uncomfortable. They see you’re not local, you’re not a hunter, so what are you doing there. Okay, yeah, you’re probably here for that.” “That” being Tubman, and a particular kind of prying.

Some white residents are indeed troubled, beyond practical concerns, by the new historical projects. The attention to the past, I was told after leaving the Eastern Shore, pains some whose ancestors were slaveholders and who feel remorse; others feel they’re implicitly being made to apologize for history. Several locals, along with officials and historians, described another force at play using like language: there are those, they said, who don’t believe that Tubman is “worthy” of all this—she was enslaved, she ran away, she stole property. And, I was told, these sentiments have been taken out on the Byway: its signs at times defaced, knocked over, and—most jarringly, to the outsider—shot up.

1 With the news of Tubman’s appearance on the twenty-dollar bill, the number of people she led to freedom via the Underground Railroad was widely misstated as “hundreds”or even “thousands.”

The sky darkened to a heavy blue as I headed back east, crossing the great open fields lining Greenbriar Road. Soon my headlights landed on the Bucktown Village Store, a nineteenth-century yellow house with a pitched roof and narrow front porch. Though it was late, Jay Meredith, the owner, showed me inside. Meredith descends from slaveowners whose former fields lay just to the south of where we stood. In the 1830s, Harriet Tubman was injured in a shop at or near this location. An overseer of a neighboring farm hit her in the head with an iron weight, inflicting Tubman with a lifelong condition—probably temporal lobe epilepsy—that caused seizures resembling narcolepsy and produced recurring nightmares, waking visions, and, it is likely, aural hallucinations. Though intensely debilitating, this epilepsy is thought to have steeled Tubman’s faith in God, as well as her staggering mettle and nerve. After her first escape, she returned to the Eastern Shore from Philadelphia, and later Ontario, a total of thirteen times, guiding seventy to eighty others to the North, and traveling most often in the cold of winter, when the cover of night was longer.1

Meredith clearly admired Tubman, but he emphasized to me that her story was not “political,”where political seemed to mean white-black, North-South relations. He sounded interested in portraying Tubman as not necessarily hostile to Dorchester’s old way of life, repeating that she did what she did to save her own family. But Tubman was in fact among the most committed enemies of the South. In 1863, serving the Union Army, she planned and led a raid in South Carolina—attacking Confederate troops, burning down plantations, and rescuing around 730 “contraband” slaves from along the Combahee River bank.

2 By 1860, free blacks in Dorchester County outnumbered the enslaved by a few hundred.

Meredith also told me that “slavery was different here,” mentioning the small size of farms. And slavery on the Eastern Shore did in some ways operate differently from that in the Deep South: farms were indeed smaller and, because timber and grain replaced tobacco as the region’s major commodities, large labor forces weren’t as consistently needed. Slaveowners here prided themselves on frequent manumissions—these are confirmed in the historical record2—as well as a custom of keeping slave families together. Though once there was a significant economic incentive to sell slaves far away—that is, once demand in the Deep South rose high enough—the Eastern Shore sold many.

But the words “it was different here” can muddy the truth, and, as in other conversations I had later, can serve directly to belie it. Frederick Douglass, autobiographer of slavery’s horrors, was born and shackled just to the north, in Talbot County. Tubman’s sister-in-law, Jane Kane, came from a plantation where slaves were forced to work naked so that it would be more difficult for them to run. Jane was beaten and bloodied and locked in a small cupboard, no more than fifteen miles from where I stood at the Village Store. Tubman herself said, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”

During my second day on the Eastern Shore, I drove south out past the old Meredith land, toward the Bestpitch Ferry Bridge—a wooden arch, over the Transquaking River where enslaved and free blacks worked as watermen. I stopped along a stretch of road lined in pines, cord grass, and drainage ditches that cut back beyond the trees into a wide marsh. Escaping slaves, running for their lives, used to hide there.

Secrecy is an inheritance of such history. McKinney’s great uncle once told her, “Back in the day, you didn’t tell your children much. If your parents ran off . . . the owner would beat you until you told where everybody was at.” “I guess that’s something that was just passed on,” McKinney said. “There were a lot of things that went on, but you just never talked about it.”  

When the new Tubman projects began, some black residents had no interest in discussing their family’s past in slavery. “Some of them feel like, why bring up all that hurt and pain?” McKinney told me. There was also a feeling in the black community that no one here had cared about black history until they were in a position to profit from it—and they doubted that black residents would now be allowed to share in the economic benefits.

There are white locals in Dorchester and Caroline, according to both black and white citizens, who say they don’t believe Harriet Tubman ever existed—a few even spoke up at public meetings to say so. And although almost everyone I spoke with—residents and officials—said that a majority of both communities now supports the Tubman projects, resentment remains. Bill Jarmon, a volunteer with the Harriet Tubman Organization and museum in the city of Cambridge, said: “They don’t understand why she is getting so much attention. . . . All of the other states and all of the other countries in the world knew more about it than we did.”

When Jarmon told me politely that “race relations in this area have never been what you would consider to be the best,” this is perhaps some portion of what he meant: until the 1970s, Race Street, where the museum sits, split the city by color—black families to the west, white to the east. In the summer of 1962, Freedom Riders likened Cambridge, where demonstrators were badly beaten, to a “little Georgia.” In 1963, ongoing race riots were so severe that they resulted in, according to one historian, “the most direct intervention of the Kennedy administration in the racial affairs” of any one community in the United States. In 1967, two blocks of the city burned to the ground after an all-black elementary school was set on fire and the all-white fire department refused to intervene.

At the end of my last day in Maryland, I stopped at Choptank Landing, a former port and a site on the Byway. This was the closest I would get to the plantation from which Tubman escaped, and to which she returned to rescue her family. I looked upriver toward it, and then headed back to Georgia.

The landscape in Dorchester, so little touched since Tubman’s time, readily carries projections we imagine to be ghosts: white egrets perched above a pond, timber in the water, shadows in the fields. There is an expansive feeling in seeing this—a feeling of opening a pane, through which we think we will begin to understand. But we can’t possibly. Renna’ McKinney’s great-great grandmother was blind from childhood. “She was blind,” McKinney says, “Because some hot coals got in her eyes. And they wouldn’t let her mother wash the ash out.”

I was often told that the “old guard” in this region—that is, “the hateful element”—has been dying out for some time. But history here is still away, behind the trees—in planks buried on the old land and graves that reside by the river.

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