The sun was setting behind a sea of pink and steel gray clouds at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern shore when a few dozen, then hundreds, then thousands of migrating geese rose into the sky with an explosion of wings.
Next to these wetlands is a futuristic-looking building with an array of solar panels and green roof.
This is the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center, which the Maryland Department of Natural Resources opened last year. It honors Tubman, the antislavery freedom fighter, who lived and hid runaway slaves here among the trackless marshes and loblolly pine forests surrounding the Blackwater River.
Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the facility, said the center focuses in part on nature because Tubman was a master of surviving alone in the wilderness. She was a slave who escaped through the woods to freedom in the North and then returned a dozen times to personally rescue about 80 more people.
“Harriet Tubman was the ultimate outdoorswoman, which is the aspect of her life that I like to talk about the most,” Crenshaw said.
“She learned how to navigate the stars down here in Dorchester County. She learned how to read the landscape, and how to be comfortable in the woods alone,” Crenshaw said. “Her first emancipation was all by herself in 1849. She travelled from Caroline County, Poplar Neck, all the way up to Philadelphia on her own. She usually travelled at night, and she usually travelled during the fall and the winter when the nights were the longest and the days were the shortest. So she had to be very familiar and comfortable with these woods and this marshy area.”
Inside the center are stunningly beautiful photos of woods and wetlands alongside horrific images of slaves being beaten and sold and wearing iron collars and muzzles. There is also a depiction of Tubman catching a muskrat in a ditch on an icy day.
“She foraged for food – there are records of that,” Crenshaw said. “She would leave a group in a quiet, hidden place and then go out and find food and sustenance for them. Because as you imagine, as you walk from Maryland to Philadelphia and other points north for freedom, you have to provide food for yourself and your group, and she never lost a passenger.”
Perhaps Tubman’s single most spectacular act came in June 1963. Working as a spy, scout and planner for the Union Army, Tubman teamed up with gunboats commanded by Colonel James Montgomery to blow up a bridge over the Combahee River in South Carolina. The Union forces with “Colonel Tubman” burned down plantations, flooded rice fields, and liberated more than 700 slaves.
“I think Harriet Tubman is an American shero – like a female hero,” Crenshaw said. “But she was just a normal person, who had an unfortunate life, she was born into slavery and never learned how to read. She was mistreated. But she did absolutely amazing things. And what I want people to remember is that we can all do amazing things, for other people, for each other and for ourselves.”
It’s an inspiring sentiment, expressed on Martin Luther King Jr. day – but meant for every day, and all people, as a light in dark times.