Retracing Harriet Tubman’s Footsteps to Freedom Across Delaware

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Photo by Joe Del Tufo

A man from Philadelphia traces Harriet Tubman’s 142-mile journey along the Underground Railroad through Delaware 165 years later.

The temperature had started to dip at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2019 when Ken Johnston set off from the banks of the Choptank River near Poplar Neck, Md. – his first steps on a 142-mile trip to Philadelphia in commemoration of the daring rescue by Harriet Tubman. his three brothers and six other slaves 165 years earlier. Their flight to freedom crossed Maryland and Delaware in winter on the longest nights of the year, when it was safer for freedom seekers to travel.

For Johnston, it was a moonless night. Near the former plantation site where Tubman and his family were once enslaved, Johnston crossed a swamp, following a trail that was normally dry at this time of year. He thought of Tubman, trying to imagine what might have crossed his mind as she escaped through that same swamp.

“It was probably the scariest part of the night for me,” said Johnston, adding that his headlamp wasn’t helping much, so he walked in the dark, allowing his eyes to adjust to see better. the path in front of him. “I had no idea how wet it was going to be, and as I walk through it, I hear the flapping of birds and ducks in the air. There were a lot of emotions going through me.

Overnight and early in the morning, Johnston traveled 20 miles, mostly along the road, through freezing temperatures, past farms and homes, until arriving in Denton, Maryland, around 9 a.m. ending his trip in the same hotel. parking lot where he had left his car the day before.

An exhibit at the museum shows a map of the Kennett area underground rail network./Photo by Joe Del Tufo

“I imagine Tubman came this way because of his isolation,” Johnston wrote on his blog, Our march to freedom, which documents his civil rights activism. “There is little here but vast areas of farmland and old plantations. It is the perfect place to hide.

Every weekend for the next two months, Johnston walked a few more miles along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, bringing only what could fit in his backpack – traveling through Camden, Dover, Smyrna, Middletown, New Castle, Wilmington and Kennett Square – until he gets to the Philadelphia Underground Railroad Museum on Saturday February 23, 2020.

“Poplar Neck is 240 miles from Philadelphia, which seems like an easy drive today, but it was a world of its own,” says Johnston, “and you can feel it when you walk, and how hard this trip is. has been monumental for them. ”

Johnston’s trip through the Delmarva Peninsula is one of the many walks he has organized in recent years to explore the historic places of the civil rights movement. He traveled the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and visited civil rights monuments and museums around the world.

Johnson is also one of the many travelers who have recently started exploring the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway, a self-guided tour of 45 designated sites that begins on the east shore of Maryland near the town of Church Creek, which is a few miles south of the city of Cambridge, and continues for over 130 miles through Maryland and Delaware, ending at the Underground Railroad Museum in Philadelphia, the city where Johnston lives.

Notable stops include the Harriet Tubman Museum and Cambridge Education Center; Willow Grove Road near the Delaware State Line, a well-known rest stop along the Underground Railroad where driver Samuel Burris and local Quakers would provide accommodation and transportation to the free communities of Camden and the Wyoming; the Old State House in Dover; and Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington, which includes a monument commemorating Tubman and his Underground Railroad aide, Thomas Garrett, who helped an estimated 2,700 slaves escape to freedom.

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The Historic Museum of the New Castle Courthouse, where Thomas Garrett was convicted of aiding and abetting runaway slaves./Photo by Joe Del Tufo

Just months after Johnston completed her journey along the underground railroad route, a woman named Linda Harris was inspired to do the same, following a similar path as Johnston’s. She created a Facebook group called We Walk With Harriet and began recruiting other women to walk from Cambridge to Philadelphia in the summer of 2020.

Having recently retired, Harris had planned to travel overseas, but the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

“Between COVID and social unrest, in particular the George Floyd incident, [it] really put me in a real depression, ”says Harris. “I was very sad and I just lost my way.”

Then one day, after reading a book about Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Harris visited Cambridge and started planning his trip. She met the president of Caroline County Historical Society, who discussed the route and encouraged her to contact Johnston, which she did.

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Linda Harris retraces her steps along the section of the Harriet Tubman Trail that runs through White Clay Creek State Park in Newark, recalling the complex emotions that filled her on this multi-day hike./Photo by Joe Del Tufo

“At that point, I thought maybe walking would help me feel better, to feel free,” says Harris. “But I’ve never walked that distance so I started training.

Not wanting to travel alone, Harris met seven other women on Facebook who started training with her. Together they walked a few miles on weekdays, then longer distances on weekends, sometimes up to 20 miles a day.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Harris. “That’s what kept me going, knowing just that this little woman took on this monumental task and never lost anyone along the way.

After months of training, their journey began on September 5, 2020 in Cambridge and continued for six days along the Underground Railroad Byway, ending in Kennett Square, Pa. On September 10. Johnston walked with them the first day.

Harris was so drawn to the city of Cambridge and its surroundings that she bought a house there; she hopes to build a camp where travelers along the route can rest for the night.

“Harriet Tubman’s life shines on me and motivates me to do things I never would have done,” says Harris. “When you walk and communicate with nature, you feel something bigger than yourself, and that opens up a whole new way of thinking.

Harris and Johnston admit that even before their first walks were over, they were already thinking about the sequel. A month after their initial trip, We Walk With Harriet traveled from Kennett Square to Philadelphia, again joined by Johnston.

Harris and Johnston both hiked the Civil Rights Trail from Selma to Montgomery, but not at the same time. Johnston continued to roam Montgomery through rural Alabama and Mississippi, then southwestern Tennessee, following the Underground Railroad through those states until arriving in Memphis in honor of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Johnston began walking in 2017, when as a resident of Massachusetts, he crossed the state from west to east. On this trip, as he passed statues and monuments commemorating union soldiers and abolitionists who fought to end slavery.

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Standing in front of the Delaware border post, Ken Johnston was out of the South, the feeling of freedom now palpable./Photo by Joe Del Tufo

The following year he walked 75 miles through Northern Ireland from Belfast to Derry in commemoration of a march in 1969 organized by that nation’s Catholic minority which was inspired by the Selma to Montgomery march.

In 2019, Johnston and his brother Keir traveled 215 miles through Puerto Rico to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria. And in January and February of this year, Johnston and his brother walked from Philadelphia to the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem, New York, in commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

All of the rides are memorable, Johnston says, usually because of the people you meet along the way. Johnston usually parked his car at destination, then carpooling or hitchhiking to the point of departure. One day, while hitchhiking from Dover to his starting point in Petersburg, a woman offered to drive him.

“I can’t take you to Petersburg,” Johnston remembers, telling the woman. “I’m late for a Quaker meeting.” A surprised Johnston said to himself: My God, a Quaker always provides transportation to someone on the Underground Railroad.

A year before writing this story, I met Ken Johnston near the end of his trip to Delaware. He had just crossed the Christina River. After a brief stop at Tubman-Garrett Park, Johnston continued to Market Street. Attached to his backpack was a sign that read “Poplar Neck, MD in Philadelphia”. Bells attached to his belt whistled as he walked. People stopped to ask who he was and what he was doing. A friend of mine offered to buy him a beer, an offer Johnston kindly obligated.

Next, walking down Market Street, Johnson, in his calm and quiet demeanor, explained why he was traveling on foot along the underground railroad route, how he had been inspired by Tubman’s life and legacy. Tired of his trip, Johnston left our company to rest for the evening. He went to Kennett Square the next day.

To draw inspiration from his walks, Johnston quotes historian-poet Sheree Renée Thomas: “What was once presumed lost, forgotten, defiled and stripped can be found, recovered and resuscitated, remixed and revived. In this ever-changing and ever-changing creative world, the ancient gods come to life. New ones are born. They speak, sing, dance new worlds in existence and build in a space where all artists are frontiers, perpetually plunging in and out of the past while forging new ways of reinventing the present, the future.



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