IN 1849, HARRIET TUBMAN escaped from the Eastern Shore farm where she was enslaved. Over the next several years, she would return 13 times, rescuing more than 70 enslaved relatives and friends, and inspiring many others to find their own path to freedom. She has become a hero, with two national parks established in her honor, several biographies about her feats, and a major motion picture about to be released about her life.
But time has not been as kind to the lands that Tubman left behind, or the descendants of the first free African-American communities that called them home.
The Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that feed it are rising, along with most of the rest of the world’s bodies of water, encroaching on the now-marshy expanses where Tubman lived and worked alongside her father, Benjamin Ross, a gifted woodsman. The land is subsiding, too, as farmers withdraw water to irrigate crops and communities reach ever deeper into the aquifers for clean drinking water. Graves, some unmarked, are collapsing, hidden in woods next to forlorn houses of worship. Ghost forests dot the landscape, once-lush loblolly pines reduced to mere skinny sticks; timbering thinned the forests, and saltwater intrusion is trying to finish the leveling.
The loss of these lands will make it much harder for future generations to understand Tubman’s story and how the community of freed and enslaved peoples networked and relied on each other to free themselves from bondage. That Maryland — and the rest of the nation — might be willing to lose these places speaks volumes about how governments and preservationists view the first lands that African-Americans were able to call their own.
At Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, now a UNESCO heritage site, the graves of former slaves and freed people who built the city’s black middle class are being swallowed by flooding from frequent storms. On Edisto Island, S.C., one of the original freedmen’s cottages, Hutchinson House, was abandoned and deteriorated for decades and is only now being restored to educate visitors about Gullah-Geechee culture. But it may be too late; a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists indicates that 57 percent of the island could be underwater by 2100. Princeville, N.C., is the oldest town in the United States to be founded by African-Americans. The town was built on low ground, and it has had to fend off flooding from the Tar River many times.
These examples, and many more, showcase America’s racialized topographies, a term that geography professors Jeff Ueland and Barney Warf used in 2006 to describe the manner in which race correlates to altitude. In their review of 146 Southern cities, the geographers found that Black residents disproportionately settled in low-lying areas while majority white communities took to higher elevations. That happened because when the Civil War ended, whites got to choose first, said Kofi Boone, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University.
“Land was available, but it was literally available land, and dependent on the willingness of the white owner to sell it,” he said. “There were a few exceptions where that available land was high ground, but not many.”
Sea level rise, climate change, and sinking lands are certainly hastening the demise of these important touchstones that were on lower land to begin with.
Along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile driving tour that state tourism and federal highway officials helped establish years ago to complement the national park that opened in 2017, important touchstones of Tubman’s life are deteriorating. Malone’s Church, a once-picturesque congregation a mile from Tubman’s birthplace in Harrisville, hasn’t held a service in years. Its windows are boarded, and some of the graves bearing the names of Tubman’s extended family are slanted and have no flowers or wreaths to indicate regular visitation. Some are deep in the woods, where feet slosh and sink and the air is thick with mosquitoes and the smell of salt marsh. Bullet holes riddle the sign explaining the church’s connection to Tubman, a reminder that some resistance remains about honoring the county’s best-known historical figure.
Smithville, a farming community once home to 100 people and enough children to keep a candy store in business, now has only three residents living in two homes. (One died this summer at age 89.) Three churches combined to ensure that a house of worship, New Revived, could remain open for Sunday services. It’s still open, but a marsh is encroaching; the outside walls have developed mold and the fellowship hall has flooded. Church leaders say they often can’t dig new graves because the ground is too wet.
Bazel’s Church is perhaps the most precarious of the sites. Though part of the original byway, the house of worship about a mile from a farm where Tubman’s primary enslavers lived is no longer on the state maps. Water damage has buckled its roof, and a tarp barely conceals the holes in the building that a local slave-owning family sold to black Bucktown residents for $1 in 1880.
“I know all of those sites really well, and I’ve watched them deteriorate over the past 15 years,” said Kate Clifford Larson, the Winchester, Mass., historian who wrote the Tubman biography “Bound for the Promised Land” and worked with Maryland and federal authorities to help establish the state and national park in Dorchester County. Larson estimates she’s visited the Eastern Shore 120 times over the past two decades to talk about Tubman and push for preservation. She has worked with both the National Park Service and local residents to try to preserve more places of significance in Tubman’s life, and the history of the people who followed her on those lands.
“That landscape was everything, and she could not have done what she did had she been transplanted into that area from somewhere else,” Larson said. “That landscape is where she lived and breathed, and the people who lived on it with her taught her to survive. She knew the bodies of water, how deep they were, what they meant. She was literate in all of those things.”
Historians and anthropologists say African-American landmarks suffer from systems put in place decades ago that stack the deck against them, and state and federal government practices that tend to exclude these historic places.
Maryland has one of the nation’s most-admired land conservation programs, spending millions of dollars each year acquiring land to turn into public parks, wildlife corridors and historic sites. Like Massachusetts, Maryland is home to several robust nonprofit land trusts as well as many property owners eager to protect their land with easements from a variety of federal and state programs. And while some local residents still oppose honoring Tubman — hence the buckshot in the sign — public officials from both parties have embraced her. The National Parks Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources jointly opened the $21 million Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center, the crown jewel on the 45-stop driving tour. (Most of the money came from the state.) So far, 225,000 visitors have come to the park, according to manager Dana Paterra. And while many visitors do head to major sites on the byway, including the farm where Tubman was enslaved, Paterra said that visits to Malone’s and New Revived are “not something the majority of our visitors are doing.” If the public did go, they would be aware of the rapid deterioration.
Compounding the problem is the construction of a canal that destroyed thousands of trees that, were they still in place, would help to hold the land together. On the orders of their owners, enslaved people cut down massive forests to hand-dig Stewart’s Canal, a seven-mile passageway designed as a shortcut to float timber logs north for a fast-developing nation.
When the federal government provides disaster aid to communities today, it gives the money to incorporated towns or to counties, which frequently disperse it to the most populated areas. Town leaders can also apply for grants to stem damage from floods, and have mechanisms to receive that money. White settlements were more likely to incorporate, electing mayors and councils to govern, while African-American towns operated more like extended families, and therefore got left out in grant funding cycles. Smithville church leaders, for example, have applied for grants to save their church and cemetery, but have lost out to other county priorities.
And federal and state governments are set up to respond to disasters, not slow, day-to-day incursions from sea water.
Michael Paolisso, a University of Maryland anthropologist who lives on the Shore, has been working with faith-based communities there for two decades. He and his graduate students have been helping African-American churches address flooding concerns. But the efforts have not always succeeded. Often, he says, he’ll drive down a lane where the churches are boarded up and the water pools in the cemeteries. The houses next door, once filled with a pastor’s family and parishioners, have become invisible, their insides overgrown with marsh plants, their roads so wet drivers rarely venture down.
“There are a few members at each one, and the ones capable and able already have tasks within the church. Now, we ask them to take on climate change,” he said. “They’re just trying to keep their churches open.”
Help is also difficult to obtain from the nonprofit land preservation community, said Brad Rogers, a former program manager for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy who now works for a Baltimore economic development authority.
“When your donor base is affluent landowners, and your membership base is people interested in conservation and recreation, you are unintentionally segregated from people with overlapping needs but coming from a very different social background. As a result, they don’t think to call, and you don’t think to wonder if there’s a role for you to participate,” he said. “The funding streams to help conservation move forward come either from public entities looking to get large areas of land protected, or from wealthy donors that want to be able to look out over a landscape and see the beauty that they have protected. Those funding streams are not geared up to support a small, unincorporated African-American community dealing with flooding and housing problems.”
What do we lose when we lose these lands? Many Americans’ understanding of slavery revolves around plantations and cotton fields. But in Maryland, slaves cut timber and farmed grains. Enslaved people worked alongside free laborers; in the 1850s, half of Dorchester County’s African-American population was enslaved and the other half was free. Baltimore, just 100 miles away, had the largest population of African-Americans in the country, and close to 90 percent were free. Black mariners, watermen, and loggers crossed borders, official and unofficial, with relative ease. They established crucial lines of communication. Tubman’s mother was enslaved, but her father and husband were free; leased out to other farms in the area, she was able to become part of a network that would have been much less possible on a plantation. The land’s topography, and the culture that accompanied some freedom of movement, tells a story about slavery unfamiliar to many Americans. And unlike many places along the deeply developed East Coast, these lands look much like they did when she escaped.
“This view right here would be familiar to Harriet Tubman,” said Alex Green as he drove his Harriet Tubman Tours van along Route 16 toward Malone’s Church, passing marsh plants and creeks. Green and his wife, Lisa, both Shore natives, have been giving tours of the significant Tubman sites for the past two years. Lisa’s mother attended the Stanley Institute, a one-room schoolhouse that educated African-American children in the county until schools integrated in the 1960s.
Their tours focus on the well-known highlights: the state and national park, an in-town museum and mural, and her birthplace. They don’t take groups to Malone’s, Bazel, or New Revived. But they go on their own sometimes, navigating the paths through the woods, and checking on their forebears. Quietly they walk, looking for the tombstones that are now removed from the official graveyard, deeper in the woods, where their feet sometimes sink into the earth. They wonder how much time the land has left. For now, they can still see a path through the woods, worn and faded. When it goes, so will a central part of Harriet Tubman’s story.
Rona Kobell, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and longtime Chesapeake Bay writer, is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.