Nearly 200 hundred years after Harriet Tubman’s birth, a visitor’s center, byway and state park near her birthplace in Dorchester County, honor her memory and work as an Underground Railroad operative and later, as a spy and nurse during the Civil War.
The Bucktown Village store, at a crossroads of what was a bustling agricultural region in Tubman’s day, is one of dozens of byway sites open to visitors. It had fallen on hard times before Thomas Meredith’s family bought it 20 years ago and began restoring it to its original appearance.
“The store shelves were filled corner to corner . . . the things you see today are representations of what would have been here during Tubman’s time,” explains Meredith as he walks around the store. “If you start from one corner, you would see things like fabrics, a child’s toys, small canned items.”
It might not have been this building, which dates to the 1860s, but it was a country store at this crossroads that is believed to be the scene of Tubman’s first act of defiance as a 13-year-old.
As the story goes, Tubman, who likely grew up just down the road on the Brodess Plantation, was sent to the store for supplies one day in 1835.
“And when she got here there was an argument taking place,” said Meredith as he stood behind a counter. “A skirmish between an overseer and a young slave boy.”
The details are vague. The overseer -- in some versions he’s said to be a slave catcher or slave owner -- asked Tubman, who was known as Minty then, to grab the child, but she refused.
“So the boy sees this opportunity as the perfect opportunity to flee,” said Meredith. “He takes off running. The closest thing to the overseer was a two-pound counter weight -- one which we have here. It’s a heavy, solid piece of iron.”
The overseer threw the weight at the boy, but missed and hit Tubman in the head instead. It’s believed Tubman survived only because she was wearing a wrap around her hair that cushioned the blow.
The incident was pivotal in Tubman’s life. Because of the injury, she could no longer work in the fields, so she was leased out to work in the marshes, trapping muskrats. There she began to familiarize herself with the land, learning pathways to eventually lead escaped slaves to freedom.
The blow also likely gave Tubman vivid visions, according to Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the Harriet Tubman State Park.
“She would hear songs and she would have these amazing connections to god,” Crenshaw said. “So her faith was strong before this but this incident cemented that.”
A glass case in the front of the store contains shackles, a pistol and if you look closely, a runaway ad for Tubman. It offers $300 dollars for her and her two brothers.
Meredith says a lot of people imagine runaways ads look like “a Wild West poster that people would have hammered on a pole somewhere. That’s just not the case.” He says people “communicated and made announcements to other people in the community through the newspaper.”
Five generations ago, the Meredith family owned the store and at one point the family owned slaves, too. Given that past, it’s striking that the Meredith family has re-built a place memorializing Tubman, in a region with as vivid a backdrop as any to grapple with history and race.
“My lineage, my great-great grandparents were people and men of their time. I certainly have no power to change what they did. I am not proud of them being slave owners,” says Meredith
Vickie White, of St. Mary’s County, was retracing some of the Underground Railroad byway when she stopped at the store.
“Since I was a little girl, I used to read about Harriet Tubman,” she said after a brief tour.
“I used to imagine her life. Being able to be in this store. It was a true story that she was hit in the head and this stuff happened to her. It’s amazing, it really is,” she said. “I have always, always thought of Harriet Tubman.”
And she said these days people are talking about Tubman more than ever.
The store, which is lined with rough wooden counters, shelves and objects from the era, is open by appointment, or by chance for now, while the Meredith family raises more money to keep it open.