«People are fascinated with Harriet Tubman because they see her as an ordinary person who rose up against all odds to escape the savagery of slavery,» said Donald Pinder, president of a group that runs the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland. «The tourists who come here are also inspired by the courage of an individual to make a difference.»
The people who visit the museum learn about one of the darkest chapters of American history, which ended when the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865. Tubman was a tireless fighter in the movement to end slavery.
«I just find her to be a remarkable person,» said Angela Horsey, a tourist from Salisbury, Maryland. «She led the way as far as freedom for all people and the slaves. I’m certainly impressed with her bravery.»
FILE – A wax likeness of Harriet Tubman, renowned abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad, is unveiled at the Presidents Gallery by Madame Tussauds in Washington, Feb. 7, 2012.
Tubman was born to enslaved parents on a farm owned by a white family in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. At the time, the area was home to hundreds of African-American slaves who worked in the fields, plowing land and picking crops. They dug canals through the river marsh to float logs and agricultural products to ships at nearby wharves.
Determined to escape
At an early age, Tubman, who could not read or write, was determined to escape bondage.
«There were a few fundamental things that Harriet could not understand, and one was slavery,» Pinder told a group of visitors. «Why were some people free, and why are some people enslaved?»
She tried twice unsuccessfully to leave the slave plantation with two brothers. Accounts suggest that at age 27, Tubman met an agent with the Underground Railroad, who helped her escape to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849.
«When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,» Tubman said. «There was such a glow over everything. Now, I was free.» Tubman said.
After reaching the city, she joined the Underground Railroad, a system of routes, private homes and other hiding places that helped fugitive slaves escape the South and flee into Northern states and Canada, where slavery was outlawed. As a runaway slave, Tubman was wanted by police and slave catchers.
Despite the dangers, she returned to Maryland numerous times to lead family and friends on the long, dangerous journey to freedom in the North, eventually rescuing about 70 slaves.
«She was 100 percent successful,» Pinder said. «So if Harriet decided to take you out, and you went, then you got your freedom.»
White slave owners were outraged. «She would take a slave away from the owner that was worth between $300 and $500, which was a lot of money back in the 1800s,» he said.
‘Move on or die’
Tubman was physically small, but tough. On a wall of the museum, there’s a painting of her carrying a gun as she leads a group of slaves through the woods.
«Did she really carry a gun?» one young student asked, wide-eyed.
«Not only did Harriet Tubman carry a shotgun for her protection, she also had a handgun,» Pinder said.
FILE – Children ride their bikes down the drive passing the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y. The home of the abolitionist is along a trail of memorials and museums from New England south to Washington, D.C.
When escaping slaves got discouraged along the route and wanted to turn back, Tubman liked to say she pointed a gun at them and commanded, «Move on or die!»
More than their safety was at stake, Pinder said. «Tubman was very concerned that the integrity of the Underground Railroad would be compromised if somebody would talk, giving away her secrets, such as their escape routes and where safe houses were located.»
Tubman later worked as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union army during the Civil War. She lived to be 91.
Surviving off the land
Tour operator Jay Meredith is passionate about telling Tubman’s life story — so much so that he and his wife purchased and restored the Bucktown Village General Store, a 19th-century wooden structure where Tubman is said to have refused a white man’s order to detain a runaway slave.
Meredith’s ancestors once owned 22 slaves on a large plantation not far from where Tubman worked. Now the Merediths operate a tourism business that offers visitors tours on bicycles and canoes that trace Tubman’s steps.
«She learned how to survive off the land,» Meredith told visitors. «She knew how to read the stars in the sky, and she knew how to understand the woods, the swamps and marshes, and that’s how she became so successful in guiding other slaves to freedom.»
Visiting school librarian Ursula York said she learned that Tubman «was a woman ahead of her time, who was fearless and who had the courage to go out on a limb to try to help slaves obtain their freedom.»