Landscape as Witness: Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center near Church Creek in Dorchester County, Maryland (Photo: Bohemian Baltimore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In early March 2020, I drove past miles of dredged canals and gangly loblolly pines toward the visitor center of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. Opened in 2014, this national park is nestled within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge comprises 30,000 acres of marshland, mixed hardwood forest, and agriculture. While no traces remain of the plantations on which Tubman and her family were enslaved, or the homes in which they communed, slept, ate, and some were eventually freed, the staff consider the landscape their witness. The site is managed by the Maryland Park Service, and it is a stop on the  National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Museum staff build their narrative of Harriet Tubman’s life and the extraordinary rescue missions she led upon the marshy ground on which Tubman was raised and knew intimately.

The visitor center is the hub where visitors begin before they have the opportunity to drive the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. A map with descriptions, oral history excerpts, and historic images accompany the driver as they pass by dozens of sites of historical significance. Some of these include what once was the Brodess farm, where Tubman was enslaved, the general store where an overseer threw an iron weight and caused Tubman a brain injury that resulted in living with epilepsy the rest of her life, and historically Black churches that continue to bring together community over 150 years later. But the visitor center is the centerpiece that convenes these stories under one roof.

The visitor center is 10,000 square feet, with a permanent exhibit on Tubman’s life on the Eastern Shore and additional space for classrooms, a library, and a museum store. The building is magnificent with large windows that look out on the surrounding marshland. At all times, the visitor is meant to connect Tubman’s story with the landscape, whether it is through the descriptive labels, tactile statues, or interactive exhibit features.

All features of the museum are free of cost. On entering the building, park rangers direct visitors to the film, which serves as an introduction to Tubman’s story, the landscape, and the park today. The film contains captions for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The entire visitor experience hinges on universal access, or the concept that making the experience as accessible as possible serves all individuals. This concept was central to the planning process, and it is evident as visitors navigate their way through the exhibit. They encounter a multi-sensory experience through audio-visual, touch, and other interactive components, which allows for a variety of learning styles. The information is intended for visitors ranging from childhood to adulthood. The stories of slavery are not sugarcoated and do not shy away from the brutality of experience.

Upon exiting the orientation film, visitors enter a dark narrow hallway that leads to a room split with a curved half wall. The sounds of a distant choir emanate from a speaker above, which reverberate against the curved wall. As visitors absorb this music, they read quotes from Tubman that describe her experience under slavery, against a backdrop of images of the Choptank River region.

From there, the room opens into an airy space with exposed beams. Exhibit labels hang from the walls, as well as angled panels with Braille and tactile objects. For example, visitors can touch models of the kinds of seasonal work that Tubman and her fellow enslaved community members would have engaged with: the shape of fish and oysters, the roughness of timber, and the texture of corn husks.

Each label describes the landscape and Tubman’s relationship with it. These exhibit labels indicate how Tubman’s intimate knowledge of the marshes and forests, as well as the skills she gained through both forced labor and among her family, supplied her with the resources to resist enslavement and support other runaway enslaved peoples in her adulthood. Likewise, the exhibit labels do not shy away from the realities of slavery and its brutality. According to one label that described the sale of her sisters, “Tubman was plagued by visions of ‘the horsemen coming.’ The ‘screams of women and children, as they were being dragged away’ haunted her. Stung and furious from her losses, Rit [Tubman’s mother] defiantly hid her youngest son, Moses, in Greenbriar Swamp when a slave trader came to buy him. She threatened to kill Brodess [the slaveholder] and his neighbors who tried to trick her into revealing Moses’ location. Rit’s passionate, risky response saved her son.” Whereas earlier studies such as Eichstedt and Small’s 2002 Representations of Slavery, Race, and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums illustrate how the absence of slavery interpretation at historic sites poses serious harm to how Americans remember the past, the visitor center critically examines the history and lingering impacts of slavery in the U.S. Indeed, this site belongs to a broadening of both scholarship and public history experiences nationwide that address these historic legacies. 1

In the second room, the narrative shifts from Tubman’s childhood growing up on this landscape, enduring the violence of slavery, and learning from her community, to the moment she decided to escape the risk of auction. Exhibit labels describe the dangers she was exposed to on that initial escape, and the lessons she gathered as she led over a dozen rescue missions in later years. Maps trace the different routes she and others took from the southeast, not only toward the north but other flight routes to Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands. As visitors follow these stories, they enter into a darkened space with starlit panels that hang from the ceilings. The lighting suggests Tubman’s path as she followed the North Star. This “North Star” leads visitors to three panels, each of which state in large bold font: “We are free because of Harriet Tubman.” Beneath each panel are the names of individuals and the dates of their rescue missions. Benches surround this space, allowing visitors to absorb these names and the “night sky.” A video plays describing these missions and their inherent risks, while African-American gospel songs play from speakers throughout the room.

Increasingly, the exhibit brightens with windows and artificial light from the initial dark hallway where people emerged following the orientation video. This visual cue is to suggest to visitors that they can follow a similar interpretive journey as the enslaved people who followed Harriet Tubman out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom.

The exhibit achieves its goals in articulating the following themes: firstly, visitors connect Harriet Tubman’s life at all times with the landscape on which she was raised. The Choptank River and its surrounding marshland were central to the lessons and resources Tubman gathered that enabled her to lead over a dozen rescue missions. Secondly, while the Underground Railroad was a collaborative and risky effort for Black and white Americans alike, it was first and foremost a resistance movement led and executed by African Americans, which brought Harriet Tubman to fame. Lastly, Tubman’s fame has only grown since her death in 1913, and her experiences and actions make her an American hero with lasting influence. Through this exhibit, visitors learn about slavery and the Underground Railroad throughout the United States in general and in Maryland in particular. In addition to serving audiences that range from childhood to adulthood, museum staff intend this exhibit for people from varied racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. On the day that I visited, there were over 30 people roaming the exhibit. I encountered 3 visitors with visible disabilities, and the majority of visitors were Black. Visitors carried tissues and snapped photos of exhibit labels with their phones.

After I left the exhibit, I found myself with lingering questions. Was Harriet Tubman’s social landscape on the Eastern Shore solely Black and white? At other sites, such as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Virginia, historical evidence suggests that runaway enslaved African Americans learned survival lessons from Indigenous peoples they encountered. What lessons might Tubman or members of her community have learned from Native people living in their midst? Rather than a story of two groups—Black and white—how might interpretation at the visitor center incorporate the histories of Indigenous peoples, the colonization of Euro-Americans, and the experiences of enslavement and freedom among African Americans?

For decades, people have come to this area in search of Tubman’s roots and desire to learn more about her life. Through a mixture of oral tradition communicated by local residents and descendants, the research of scholars, and federal and state public historians, the center satisfies the visitor’s desire to “find” Harriet Tubman.

[1] Check out the Race, Ethnicity, and Society Equity in Tourism (RESET) initiative and the Slave Dwelling Project to learn more about tourism and historic legacies of slavery. The June 2019 New York Times article “Enslaved People Lived Here. These Museums Want You To Know.” addresses other examples of historic site interpretation of slavery.

  1. Check out the Race, Ethnicity, and Society Equity in Tourism (RESET) initiative and the Slave Dwelling Project to learn more about tourism and historic legacies of slavery. The June 2019 New York Times article “Enslaved People Lived Here. These Museums Want You To Know.” addresses other examples of historic site interpretation of slavery.
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Perri Meldon

Perri Meldon is a PhD student in the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University, and in Spring 2020 she was a visiting fellow in Harvard University's History Department. Her research examines state and federal land management through the lens of public and environmental history. Prior to moving to Boston, Meldon completed her M.A. in History and Public History at University of Massachusetts Amherst.