From the very first moment when you come face-to-face with the life-sized bronze bust of Harriet Tubman in the lobby of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, MD, the story of this strong and resilient woman grabs your attention.
Scheduled for its grand opening on March 11-12, 2017, this $21 million tribute to freedom fighter, abolitionist, Civil War spy and suffragist Harriet Tubman honors one of America’s most famous conductors of the Underground Railroad. Born enslaved in 1822 in Dorchester County, MD, Tubman is credited with returning 12 times after she escaped to help more than 70 enslaved people flee from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to freedom in the north.
It’s hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been for Tubman and her ‘passengers’ as they wound their way through more than 100 miles of fields, marshes and forests of Maryland at night, trying to avoid slave-catchers and dogs. You can get a fairly good idea of what Tubman would have seen, however, because the 17-acre site is set adjacent to the undeveloped Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which still looks much like it would have in the mid-1800s.
Set among wide-open fields, the visitor center features a legacy garden with a three-quarter mile walking trail that winds through plants that are native to the Eastern Shore. The paths are designed to make visitors feel the uncertainly that those escaping felt when they had to make life-or-death decisions without being able to see what lay ahead.
The building, created by GWWO, Inc./Architects from Baltimore, MD, is masterfully designed to represent the northbound journey of enslaved people fleeing from the southern states. After entering the lobby and viewing a 20-minute orientation film about the life and legacy of Tubman, who was known as "The Moses of her people," guests begin at the southern end of the exhibit and walk through a dark and closed-in hallway, created using reclaimed barn wood from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. As they continue to travel north, the ceilings get higher and the hallway opens up into a wide, brightly lit space that ends in a huge glass wall with views to the north. You can almost feel the release—and relief—as you are welcomed into a more open world.
There are numerous displays that viscerally explain the life-threatening journey that enslaved people took to freedom, including an exhibit that documents how Tubman and her three brothers hid in a corn crib before they escaped on Christmas Day in 1854. Their father, who brought them food, accompanied them some miles upon their journey while wearing a blindfold so that, if asked, he could honestly say that he hadn’t seen his children. Their mother was never told that they were leaving as she would be too distraught and give the secret away.
The displays are accessible to everyone though Braille translation, 3-D recreations and audiovisual means, including touch screens and sound stations that provide haunting oral histories and interviews.
Because Tubman’s work did not end with her service to the Underground Railroad, the displays also include her role as a Union spy during the Civil War, her work as an abolitionist, suffragist and a nurse, and her establishment of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which provided nursing and respite care for aging African Americans on her land in Auburn, NY.
Located along Route 335, the visitor center is part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a driving tour that features 36 historically significant sites related to Tubman’s early years in the Choptank River region of Maryland and the Underground Railroad. It’s an experience I would absolutely recommend for those who want to understand just how far people would run—and how many risks they would take—for freedom.
Planning your visit
The grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center will take place the weekend of March 11-12, 2017. Activities include:
- Talk and book signing by Tubman biographer and scholar Dr. Kate Clifford Larson
- Lead architect Chris Elcock talking about the hidden symbolism in the landscape
- NPS Centennial Poet Laureate Dr. Sonia Sanchez leading a creative writing workshop
- Historian Tony Cohen leading a walk showing what skills were required to survive a journey on the Underground Railroad
- Examples of a few games that enslaved children played
- Junior Ranger program
- Re-enactor Millicent Sparks performing her interpretation of Harriet Tubman
Visit their site for more information.
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