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Harriet Tubman was a political activist and American abolitionist, born Araminta Ross in Maryland in March 1822. She dedicated her life to helping enslaved black people escape to freedom and financially assisting them to start new lives.
Tubman is best known for her 10-year span ‘conducting’ the Underground Railroad, which was a covert network of people who helped slaves escape from the South to the free states in the North and Canada. Tubman was a huge asset as she knew Maryland’s terrain and landscape due to her upbringing. As a result, she guided over 300 escapees from safehouses to freedom without detection.
Now, over a century after Tubman’s death on 10 March 1913 – and following the success of the 2019 Hollywood biopic shot in Virginia, Harriet – travel agencies are helping locals and travellers to retrace her steps.
Capital USA and Bon Voyage both offer 125-mile self-guided itineraries through America’s Capital Region, which highlight areas crucial to Tubman’s early life and the Underground Railroad. Then, Harriet Tubman Tours offers half- and full-day guided tours to explore Tubman’s legacy in Maryland. These can be modified to include wildlife refuges and walking trails.
The most comprehensive Tubman tours are in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, where she mostly lived and worked – which happen to be packed with history and natural beauty, too. Washington, D.C. is full of historical landmarks, while Chesapeake Bay and the mountainous Great Appalachian Valley, which run through Maryland and Virginia, provide a serene backdrop to your road trip.
Dana Paterra, park manager of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Maryland, has noticed a recent spike in visitor numbers as the region increasingly celebrates Tubman’s legacy.
“We saw a tremendous amount of visitors in anticipation of the movie,” Paterra says, noting that they had twice as many visitors in November 2019 than in the previous November. “Everyone was talking about it.”
In remembrance of her approximated birthday and death — and to celebrate one of America’s most pioneering heroines for International Women’s Day — take a road trip along this trailblazer’s path and see her legacy first hand.
First stop: Maryland
Your journey starts where Tubman’s life began: Dorchester County, Maryland. It’s where she spent her childhood, working at various farms she was contracted out to.
“I would encourage everyone to start their Tubman travels at the the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek,” says Paterra, noting that it’s both a great introduction to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, and right at the centre of where Tubman grew up. “Within an hour they can get an in-depth overview of Tubman’s life and legacy.”
It was at the Bucktown General Store — one of the marked stops on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway — where an overseer cracked Tubman’s skull with an iron weight. The injury left her with seizures that gave her vivid dreams, which she attributed to visions from God.
It’s fitting, then, to make your next stop Malone’s Church in Madison, where Tubman attended services. It was also the first African-American church to be founded in the area and a nearby cemetery is the final resting place of Tubman’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother.
“The church stands as a testimony of the faith of everyone who’s buried there,” says Renna McKinney, who heads up the Harrisville-Malone Cemetery Maintenance Fund. “Their sweat, their tears.”
A 20-mile drive from the church is Great Marsh Park in Cambridge, where you can have a picnic near the water before heading to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in downtown Cambridge. It features the ‘Take My Hand’ mural, which depicts Tubman with her arm extended. Completed in May 2019, the artwork attracted a huge number of visitors that spring after a photo of a young black girl reaching out to touch Tubman’s hand went viral.
Today, Cambridge — a former slave town — is a living testament to African Americans’ continuing influence. In 2018, Victoria Jackson-Stanley made history by becoming the first woman and African American to lead the city as mayor.
Visitors looking to see this influence in action can enjoy a meal at The Coast Café, a soul food restaurant that has been a mainstay in Cambridge for 15 years. It’s in the neighborhood where founder Tony Brooks grew up, and its menu — smothered pork chops, jerk chicken patties, and sweet potato pie — is inspired by the cuisine his mother remembers from her childhood in Mississippi.
Next up: Washington D.C.
Your next stop is Washington D.C. Accounts indicate that Tubman likely travelled to the nation’s capital on several occasions as a nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. In March 2019, the Smithsonian Museum grabbed headlines when it announced the discovery of the oldest known picture of Tubman. The photo is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in its “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition.
A five-minute drive down the road is the United States Capitol, which attests to the strides African American have made in a relatively short period of time. From building the White House as an enslaved class, African Americans are running thriving businesses despite the growing threat of gentrification – some practically in the shade of the Capitol itself.
It’s worth your time (and your taste buds) to visit Ben’s Chili Bowl, a 10-minute drive north. The long-standing eatery offers the type of hearty, American comfort food that’s imperative after a day of sightseeing: chili dogs, half-smokes and burgers. Once you’ve had your fill, step outside to check out the ever-growing mural of famous black figures, including the Obamas, Prince, and Tubman herself.
Wind down the evening at The Bar @ Milk and Honey on Georgia Avenue. Founded by Sammy Davis (a chef who rose to fame on American reality TV show Chopped), this African American-owned restaurant is popular for its delectable cocktail selection – don’t miss the Cheetos-inspired Flamin’ Hot Bloody Mary – and seafood specialities, like lobster and grits.
Final stop: Virginia
Tubman was stationed as a nurse at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, during the Civil War. This location is also known for being the site of the First African Landing, where a ship dropped off 20 kidnapped men and women from Angola in 1619. A monument currently marks the spot where the first Africans arrived in North America.
Roughly an hour away is the Richmond Slave Trail, a self-guided walking tour that provides a window into how expansive the Atlantic Slave Trade was. The excursion begins at Manchester Docks, from which Africans were sold and shipped off, for nearly a century.
One of the later stops on the trail is the Reconciliation Statue, which was erected in 2007. The statue is identical to those in England and Benin (Africa) and acts as a formal apology for the state’s role in slavery.
And, just like Washington, D.C., African Americans in Richmond – the former capital of the Confederacy – continue to thrive. For visitors, it’s hard to miss this tight-knit city’s appreciation of culture and community.
As your trip winds down, make a stop at bareSOUL Yoga and Wellness in Richmond, which also hosts weekly events at the Urban Suite RVA. The studio provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on your travels.
Founder and owner Ashley Williams says BareSOUL is dedicated to providing a safe space for those seeking empowerment and meditation. As African American representation is generally lacking in the yoga and wellness scene, it’s especially worth visiting this African American-owned studio, which offers group and private yoga classes for varying experience levels.
Many of BareSOUL’s classes are run through a social justice lens and are focused on addressing real-life issues, like mental health and wellness. The studio is also committed to bettering the Richmond community, and offers resources to people struggling with addiction and at-risk young people.
Tubman’s tenacity led to the betterment of countless lives during and post-slavery. Retracing her footsteps shows her legacy not just in the landmarks along the way, but the African American communities that are at the heart of each destination.