A new visitors’ center on the Eastern Shore explores the history of one of Maryland’s most famous figures, the Underground Railroad conductor, abolitionist and Civil War spy Harriet Tubman.
The $21 million Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is in Church Creek, about a two-hour drive from Baltimore. It opens Saturday to the public, four years after its groundbreaking.
Free events scheduled for the grand opening weekend include children’s activities, presentations by a Tubman re-enactor, tours of a legacy garden that will discuss escape methods used by Tubman, and talks by rangers and others.
A ribbon-cutting was held at the site on Friday, designated by the U.S. Congress in 1990 as Harriet Tubman Day. Tubman died on March 10, 1913, at a home for the elderly she founded in Auburn, New York.
Tubman’s great-great-niece, Valerie Manokey, attended the ribbon-cutting and said she feels “pride, honor, love and resolution,” now that the center is opening.
“We made it,” said Manokey, who is 81 and lives in nearby Cambridge, Maryland. “And I am truly proud to say: ‘Yes, I am the niece of Harriet Tubman.”
Visitors will see a short video introduction to Tubman’s life and her formative years in Maryland. A permanent exhibit focuses on Tubman and the Underground Railroad resistance movement in Maryland, including Tubman’s brutal treatment at the hands of slave owners, her escape to freedom, and her later rescues of hundreds of slaves.
The center consists of four connected buildings depicting Tubman in sculpture during different stages of life, from her youth to her work on the Underground Railroad. Videos and panel illustrations on the walls tell of her strong sense of family, community and religious faith. Her roles in the Civil War as a nurse, scout and spy are represented. The center also has a shop and a research library.
Looking at Tubman
The center includes a new bronze bust of a youthful Tubman, who was born as a slave named Araminta Ross in 1822 in Madison, about 10 miles away. The bust is displayed on a pedestal so that the top of the head reaches her height – just 5 feet tall. The base includes wood from a former Maryland landmark – the 460-year-old Wye Oak – and a cedar tree.
The bust was made by Eastern Shore artist Brendan Thorpe O’Neill, who studied photos of Tubman in her 60s, then sought to show how she would have appeared when younger. Thorpe sculpted another bust of Tubman in 2014 for display at Government House, the governor’s mansion in Annapolis.
What She Saw
The visitor center is on a 17-acre site next to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge . It includes sweeping views of the marshy refuge, and paths through a landscape that has changed little since Tubman’s time in the early to mid-1800s. It preserves routes she likely would have navigated as an adult leading other slaves to freedom.
Journeys, Old and New
The visitor center is a gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a self-guided driving tour. The route includes 125 miles of countryside and shoreline in Maryland’s Dorchester and Caroline counties. It offers 36 points of interest, including places where Tubman lived and historically significant sites related to the Underground Railroad.
The center is managed in a partnership of the Maryland Park Service and the National Park Service, and is a sister park to the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn.
This new center includes environmentally friendly elements, such as rain barrels, vegetative roofs and bio-retention ponds. A 2,600-square-foot pavilion outside has a stone fireplace and picnic tables. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. There is no entry fee. A park website says there are no food or drink options at the site, but visitors are welcome to pack lunch or snacks and use the water fountains.