My husband and I arrive at the Brodess Farm in Dorchester County, Maryland, to quiet and serenity. The only sound is the melodious chirping of insects, birds and other wildlife this city couple can’t identify.
We are at the childhood home of Harriet Tubman, on the farm once owned by her enslaver, Edward Brodess. In one respect, I am in awe of the site where the mighty Tubman spent her formative years. It was here that she began to build the courage to make the dangerous and harrowing decision to escape to freedom and eventually lead about 70 others north as well.
At the same time, I am overwhelmed with emotion as I reflect on how savage this now seemingly peaceful place was for enslaved people like Tubman. It was here that she feared she might be sold to another plantation, never to see her family again—where she endured beatings and had no control over her fate.
This was the first of three October outings I would spend making my way along the self-guided driving tour of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The Brodess Farm in Bucktown is stop 16 on the list of 45 places. I quickly found the byway too involved to do in a one-day voyage if I was truly going to take in each site. Even three days left me breezing past some of the stops (I had to skip Philadelphia entirely).
I made it through 18 stops that first Saturday, starting at the Dorchester County Visitor Center in Cambridge, with its beautiful water views and exhibits on Maryland’s slave history. It’s where I picked up a driving guide and planned out my trip. I ended at the Bestpitch Ferry Bridge in Bucktown, which was closed the day I visited (at press time, it was still closed for repairs). The bridge wasn’t significant in Tubman’s life, but fleeing slaves would stow away on ferries and hide in marshes like those surrounding the bridge.
I felt the flip-flop of emotions that I experienced at the Brodess Farm time and again throughout my journey. I learned the details of Tubman’s life from markers, informational signs and an audio tour as I snaked 125 miles through Maryland’s Eastern Shore and 98 miles through Delaware. A downloadable audio guide made the experience more immersive, as if I were in Tubman’s shoes.
At the Brodess Farm, a narrator depicting the abolitionist describes when she was old enough to be forced to work at a farm away from her family.
“The man come after me riding horseback,” she said. “He put me up front of him on the horse, and off we went.”
She soon missed her family.
“I used to sleep on the floor in front of the fireplace,” she said. “And there I lie and cry. Oh, I cry.”
That first day also took us through Cambridge to the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden in the heart of the city, across from a grocery store and off a busy street. Charles Ross, a descendant of Tubman’s, painted the mural of her that’s located on the site. At the nearby Dorchester County Courthouse, where Tubman’s niece Kessiah and her two children escaped from the auction block in 1850, my husband and I walked down the steps to the spot where the auction was once held—and where a concrete block stands, although it is unclear if it is the original. We then went to Long Wharf, where slaves were once sold along the waterfront, now home to recreational boats.
I would spend most of my time that first day at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in downtown Cambridge. The storefront museum on Race Street is a little worn but has a down-to-earth grassroots vibe that drew me in—and the museum was one of the best parts of the tour. I met volunteers who had fought for decades for more recognition for Tubman, and I took a picture next to a mural as if I were holding the heroine’s hand. I listened to a jazz ensemble and watched a museum-sponsored lantern parade for local children. Lanterns once identified houses that were safe for escaping slaves.
The museum has endured even after the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center opened in 2017 in nearby Church Creek. The 10,000-square-foot visitor center has all the staples of a modern-day museum, including a theater with films about Tubman, and glossy exhibits of her life, from childhood to her service in the Civil War. An outdoor nature path is reminiscent of the woods and marshy areas Tubman once navigated in the dark of night to avoid capture.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge also reflected that terrain with its forests and marshes. I felt like an imposter as I followed Tubman’s path from the comfort of a car.
Throughout my tour, it stood out how the historic churches, cemeteries and other landmarks are immersed in the community—in some cases, businesses and houses are right next door. I worried some about the preservation of these pieces of history, but also was impressed that people treated them as sacred ground.
Another memorable part of that first day was seeing the Bucktown Village Store, a restoration of the building where Tubman was knocked down by a 2-pound weight thrown at an escaping slave. It was closed due to the pandemic, but a peek through the windows revealed a mercantile setting that looks as it might have during Tubman’s era, with artifacts related to slavery. Her refusal to assist in that slave’s capture was said to be her first act of resistance.
The following weekend, my husband and I started out in Delaware. We stopped at the Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington and saw a beautiful sculpture of Tubman. The park overlooks the Christina River, near where she once was trapped while hiding from slave catchers.
Three stops were closed when we arrived: the Center for African American Heritage in Wilmington, the New Castle Court House Museum and the Old State House in Dover, where Samuel D. Burris, a free Black Underground Railroad conductor, was arrested, tried and convicted. I decided to return at a later date, making a mental note to check the hours of operation ahead of time.
Picking back up where we had left off in Maryland, we drove past Scott’s Chapel in Bucktown, which doesn’t offer public access but is worth a view from the outside. Brodess worshipped there, and Tubman might have as well.
At the Webb Cabin in Preston, once owned by a free African American farmer, I lifted up the floorboards to see the “potato hole,” a small space where slaves were hidden while trying to avoid capture. I got claustrophobic just thinking about being scrunched up in such a tight space for hours, if not days. We ended the day at the Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House in Denton, a Quaker site that was friendly to slaves.
The next Saturday, my mom tagged along as I finished the Maryland part of the tour and revisited the Delaware sites that were closed the first time around. I could have stayed a couple of hours at the 440-acre Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Maryland, which offers a separate audio tour and educational programs on how fleeing slaves survived in similar conditions.
I also could have spent a day hiking the trails at Blackbird State Forest in Smyrna, Delaware. “Blackbird” was one of Tubman’s landmarks, according to the byway driving guide.
Back at the New Castle Court House Museum in Delaware, we learned the story of abolitionists Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, who were put on trial and found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. As I sat on a court bench listening to a tour guide speaking from where judges once presided, I thought of the injustice of denying people freedom. New Castle was also one of the Underground Railroad locations where Tubman stopped.
One of the joys of the byway tour was seeing small communities and parts of the state I normally wouldn’t. Places where tractors drive on the main road and produce stands operate on the honor system. Many of the communities had taverns, antiques stores, mom-and-pop retailers and beautiful water views.
As the country grapples with the accuracy of its history and whether it glosses over slavery, the tour’s celebration of Tubman and other abolitionists was refreshing. With each mile, my appreciation grew for this monumental figure, her resilience and the way she changed history.
If you go
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway self-guided tour map, driving guide and audio guide can be downloaded at harriettubmanbyway.org, or you can stop by the Dorchester County Visitor Center for a printed copy. I found the map hard to navigate, but the driving guide—with stop-by-stop directions and a description of each site—is a good resource. There are guided tours in some of the towns and at some museums and historical sites; they are separate from the official byway tour.
Andrea K. McDaniels is a Baltimore-based writer. She is planning to spend a few more days exploring the sites she didn’t get to on the byway.