The Legacy of Harriet Tubman

American Icons, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on August 19, 2001

Escaped slave, laundress, nurse, and spy for the Union Army, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) perhaps is best known for being one of the most successful “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, leading hundreds of slaves to freedom prior to the Civil War. To many of her time, she was an inspiration; to many today she’s an inspiration still.

“The promotion of Harriet Tubman’s legacy has been a healing force in the community,” says Evelyn Townsend, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge, Md.

Sitting at a table inside the Underground Railroad Gift Shop on Race Street, Townsend recalls the tumultuous days of 1967, a period marked by civil rights demonstrations that led to the Maryland National Guard being called in. That time of trouble was nationwide, and, as it did in so many other places, it left both emotional and economic scars on Cambridge, a town of 10,911.

But these days, Cambridge’s civil rights legacy, especially the story of Harriet Tubman, is playing a role in the town’s revitalization, both as the Dorchester County seat and as a gateway for those visiting the southern Chesapeake Bay area, including the Maritime and Dorchester Heritage museums.

“The Harriet Tubman Organization has given much to the community,” says Tom Flowers, president of the Dorchester County Commissioners. “By looking at Tubman’s life, we gain perspective on a time when prejudice was so widespread, and she showed us there are ways to overcome it. She proved people can knock those walls down,” he says.

The group has done much, Flowers feels, to heal wounds and create pride in Cambridge and Tubman’s contributions to freedom.

Tubman was born in 1820 on the Broduss Plantation in Bucktown, about 10 miles south of Cambridge. A slave at the time of her birth, she worked in the fields before escaping to the North in 1849. After gaining her own freedom, she returned to the area 19 times, leading more than 300 slaves to freedom. Her odyssey, aided by blacks and whites alike, took place along a 130-mile Underground Railroad route stretching from Bucktown to Philadelphia. By the time she died at the age of 93, she was known as “the Moses of her people.”

“Tubman symbolizes the values America was founded on,” Townsend says. “She didn’t think about, ‘He’s white and I’m black.’ She dealt with all races and all races dealt with her.”

Since the Harriet Tubman Organization was formed in 1989, the group has worked to save and restore local landmarks in Tubman’s honor. Thanks, in part, to their efforts, the stretch of Route 50 running through Dorchester County—just before it swings north at Cambridge to run parallel to the Chesapeake Bay shore—was dedicated to Tubman; the Harriet Tubman memorial park with a Tubman mural was opened last year; and a roadside marker was erected near the farm where she was raised.

The group also conducts tours—for everyone from area schoolchildren to tourists—of Tubman-related sites in the county.

“On our tours we tell people, ‘This is where Harriet walked as a child, and this is where she worked in the fields,’ Townsend says. “And when they hear that, people will pick up handfuls of soil and put it in envelopes or wrap it in papers to take with them. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

This year, Maryland designated March 10 as Harriet Tubman Day. To mark the event, Townsend and her group sponsored a variety of activities in and around Cambridge, including music and art workshops and an essay-writing contest for children about Tubman’s legacy. In May, the group co-sponsored a weeklong pilgrimage from Cambridge to Auburn, N. Y., where Tubman lived following the Civil War and where she’s buried. Participants followed the Underground Railroad route used by Tubman and learned of her harrowing and dangerous journeys.

“It seems like we’re involved in so many activities,” says Townsend, with a smile. “People throughout the community are always asking me, ‘What’s Harriet Tubman involved in now?’”