Washington D.C. It's just over two hours by car, but it's a journey through time. “Tubman Country” – that's what the locals proudly call this area on the east coast of the USA. Here, on a promontory between Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic, lived in the 19th century, the black freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.
The picture we have found in a biography of her shows a petite, only 1.50 meters tall woman with a determined look. Tubman was a slave by birth, founder of a secret liberation organization. She campaigned for women's rights and the rights of blacks.
The tour is 230 kilometers long. Historians have put together this unique tour in the United States: a road trip past deserted slave yards and wetlands, through pine forests and marshes.
First stop and heart of the tour is the “Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center”. The museum is located south of Church Creek on a forest clearing. The entrance to the building complex, which was opened in 2017 with wooden facades, glass fronts and zinc-clad roofs, is fresh-laid. Today, people from all over the world make daily pilgrimages here. Ex-President Barack Obama had given the go-ahead and declared the 17-acre area to the National Park.
Chains, whips and a boat
Ranger Angela Crenshaw wears the typical beige-green national park uniform with coats of arms. “I'm asked, where is the subway? Where are the tunnels and trains? “The mid-thirties looks amused by her large gold-framed sunglasses. “I explain then that it is an underground movement that campaigned for the liberation of the slaves and the rights of African Americans.”
Underground Railroad is a metaphor for a network of helpers, secret hiding places and encrypted messages. The organization served to send runaway slaves to safe countries. It existed in the mid-19th century until the end of the US Civil War. The vocabulary of the railway system served as a camouflage code: it spoke of stations, station managers, passengers and conductors. And right here in no-man's-land was the most important link between the southern states where there was slavery and the northern states where ex-slaves like Harriet Tubman could live in freedom.
In the museum, Crenshaw shows us a rowing boat with which slaves once fled, as well as exhibits such as chains and whips of the overseers. The next exhibition space is sparsely lit. Under a starry sky with Polarstern you have modeled the nocturnal landscape. Everything should look like Tubman's time. The explanations for the exhibits sound from headphones. Again and again the Tubman told of visions. Since a serious head injury she suffered from sleep attacks. If she lost consciousness, the freedom fighter believed she could look to the future.
“It was a miracle that Tubman did not die that afternoon at the General Store in Bucktown,” Crenshaw says of the accident that led to the injury. “Only 20 kilometers away, she was supposed to buy something for her mistress and was caught between a fleeing slave boy and his brutal watchdog. That was a turning point in her life. “
An injury as motivation
We make our way on the two-lane asphalt band on the way to Bucktown, where everything happened. Always there: An app (“Harriet Tubman Byway”), which identifies a total of 36 scenes of slavery: marketplaces, on which slave auctions took place, homes of escape aids, canals, which served as an escape route.
Bucktown is a village and consists of a farm, a few houses and a general store. Inside we meet Susan Meredith and her husband, together they have restored the small wooden house itself. The interior is original from the 19th century.
An old teapot stands on a stove, and boxes are stacked on the shelf for seeds. Susan tells the story as if she had been there: “A slave boy ran into the store, behind him the overseer Thomas Barnett. To stop the boy, Barnett threw a two-pound weight after him, but hit Harriet's forehead. “
The deep wound over the temple bleed for two days. But Tubman survived. During their lifetime, they were in pain, fainting, and at the same time their faith in God grew. “That was not me,” she replied to the question of how she found the way at night on her deliverance actions, “God showed him to me.”
Tubman was a strategist
We leave the Bucktown General Store and head west to Blackwater National Park. After half an hour we reach the nature reserve. The sanctuary for migratory birds is home to many endangered plant and animal species. At the central vantage point, a large walkway with wooden railings and binoculars, we have an appointment with Ernestine Wyatt. The 65-year-old is the great-great-great-niece of Harriet Tubman. She has been committed to the legacy of her ancestor for many years.
We stand with her in the middle of a wild green marsh landscape. Bald eagles have their territory here. Bald, dead tree trunks tower in the blue sky. At Harriet Tubman's time, farmers grew tobacco, cotton, flax, and corn in the drier areas of the area. “Harriet could neither read nor write, but she was an excellent strategist. She had this peasant's sleep and could be funny, too, and she led everyone into freedom who wanted to come with her. “Ernestine Wyatt looks amazingly alike with her small stature, her big, alert eyes and the determined expression of her famous relatives.
Her eyes are filled with admiration – and anger at the Trump administration. In 2020, Harriet Tubman's portrait should adorn the new $ 20 greenback. At least that's what the Obama administration decided. But nothing will come of it.
The new dollar bill, according to the US Treasury Department – if any – at least 2028 come. The current US president wants to erase everything and forget what the Obama era left behind, says Wyatt. Their outrage is understandable: until then it will continue the slaveholder and Indian hater Andrew Jackson gracing the bill.
A journey through the night
The sun is now almost vertical in the sky. The air has become heavy. In the background, a heron combs the swamp with long strides. Wyatt goes on to the museum – on the other hand, the Tubman app guides us via a few isolated intersections to the east.
In the glistening light we enter the grounds of Brodess Farm. But only a windy sign and a fence recall the historical significance. The farmer Edward Brodess was the slave owner of Harriet's mother.
According to the sales contract, his children belonged to it as well. Harriet and her family worked here for many years. In September 1849, the then 27-year-old Tubman made the decision to leave everything behind. Because she was to be sold to the Southern States, she did not return to work in the field, but made her own way north. Our mobile app expresses the farewell pain with a well-known gospel song. A woman's voice sings: “I want to meet you in the promised land!” This country was called freedom.
Harriet embarked on the Underground Railroad, a life-threatening journey through wadentone marshes, canals, and forests – chased by detection dogs and bounty hunters. She came forward only in the shelter of the night. At dawn she hid in the homes of friendly families, so-called safe houses. Their goal: Philadelphia, which granted the slaves freedom. The imaginary tracks led across the northern states even to Canada.
A spiritual heritage
Our search continues to Cambridge on the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the USA. The App for the sleepy 22,000-inhabitant village has a total of six historically important places. The small town with harbor was once an important trading center for slaves. In the 17th century, the first slave ships established here. Today, fishing boats dangle at the pier of Cambridge. Oystercatchers had once brought wealth here. Meanwhile, the natural shellfish banks are completely exploited.
Escape helpers will have shunned this place on their rescue operations. The state power was sitting here. Slave auctions were held regularly in front of the courthouse. Eyewitness reports on our tour app describe tumultuous scenes. Families were torn apart, some used the confusion to escape.
Already at the entrance to the town, a 50-square-meter mural points to the disturbing past: the picture shows Harriet Tubman in survival size in the midst of the Afro-American community in the region. What immediately catches the eye – the perspective is shifted: we do not look at Harriet, but she fixates us as a viewer.
Painter Michael Rosato says he put Tubman at the center of his image because it was an inspiration to many African Americans: “Many thought, if she can, I can. Harriet left a spiritual legacy. “
Hundreds of slaves made it to freedom
And so the circle closes at the entrance of Cambridge. Here, where stressed-out capital city dwellers are looking for golfing, sailing, paddling and maritime folklore, administrators and historians have opened a window into the past. The towering mural stands for this perspective. And Tubman's gaze hardly forgets a visitor. It is also about the dignity of the African Americans and a late reparation, with which the current US government so severely.
Tubman not only helped hundreds of compatriots into freedom, she fought in the Civil War for the Southern Union, scouting Confederate positions and freeing prisoners. After the end of the civil war, she was refused a pension despite her merits. Only in old age, shortly before her death in 1913, did she receive a monthly pension for her work as a nurse. She was 91 years old.
More than 100 years later, she's set a big cinematic monument: In November, a Hollywood epic about her will be released.
Tips and information
Road trip The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway is 230 kilometers long (harriettubmanbyway.org). Good starting point is the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center in Church Creek. The app “Harriet Tubman Byway” (iOS, Android or tubman.oncell.com) is free.
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