For most of my life I’ve read books and been exposed to a variety of media about the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman, also known as Black Moses. However, never would I have imagined walking in the footsteps of this fierce warrior woman and the many men, women, and children she helped escape a life of slavery, as they traveled northward, in search of freedom that was not available to them in the south. At a minimum, for me, it was a surreal experience. The trail was eerily quiet with only the sound of birds chirping and crickets singing in the backdrop of a heavily canopied forest, located in Sandy Springs, Maryland, about 18 miles northeast of Washington, DC.
Upon our arrival, my family and I were greeted by a park ranger who gave us the lay of the the trail and sent us on our way to tackle the two mile hike. As we made our way towards the trail, we first encountered the Stone Barn, located at Woodlawn Manor, now a cultural park. The Stone Barn was built in the 1700s for William Palmer, a Quaker, who created controversy after going against his religion when he decided to keep his slaves rather than free them. His defiance of his faith put him at odds with other Quaker Christians, because Quakers did not believe in slavery. For his betrayal, he was excluded or as I would like to describe, given the middle finger by his fellow Quakers.
We did not visit the Stone Barn, but if it’s something you’re interested in, be prepared to pay a nominal fee. We, however, were more interested in the trail, which is free – unless you want a guided tour.
The Stone Barn, part of the Woodlawn Manor Cultural Center, Photo by Andrea Speaks
The entrance to the trail is near a horse stable. While on the trail, you might encounter horses. There are even a few signs that warn against feeding the horses. On our trek, we did not encounter horses, only a family and a couple making the same trek as us. The trail itself is a walk in the park for those who engage in a frequent exercise routine. There are no large boulders to climb or navigate – just a couple small boulders to walk around. The trail itself has only a few slightly elevated areas that might cause the unfit to breathe a little deeper than normal. At about the halfway point, there are two foot bridges that cross what appeared to be a shallow creek or pond. Be sure to watch your step as you move about, and you should be fine.
Near entrance to the Underground Railroad Trail, Photo by Andrea Speaks
Regarding wildlife, I didn’t see any. The only danger I spied along the trail was poison oak and ivy. As I stated earlier, it was eerily quiet, which helped me to get a sense of what it must have been like to make the trek back then. Making even the slightest of sound could be the difference between being caught or freedom. Not only that, as I hiked the trail, I thought about how the chirping birds could sound the alarm that a human being was invading its space. Thereby, tipping off the slave catchers that someone was on the move. I imagined dogs running through the forest, barking loudly as they picked up human scents. I could see my brothers and sisters running wildly for their lives, ducking and hiding, not giving one care about the poison ivy, I shrieked at. Posion ivy was the least of their worries.
My family and I hiked the trail during the late morning hours and while doing so I could not help but wonder what it must have been like to be on the trail during the dark of night, but then I put my thoughts in complete check. The dark of night is nothing in comparison to the darkness and evilness of slavery. Nothing in comparison to the threat of being hung; of losing a limb.
For me, one of the most striking objects on the trail was the Hollow Tree. The Hollow tree was just that – hollow. Hollow enough to hide slaves from their would be captor, to allow them a rest, to provide them cover from bad weather, and/or for Harriet Tubman and her assistants to store food for slaves on the run.
Hollow Tree, Photo by Andrea Speaks
The above picture doesn’t really portray how hollow the tree is. The cavernous like opening in the tree was large enough for me to sit in.
Perspective. That’s what hiking the trail provided me. I was able to casually enjoy the trail on a beautful summer morning with my family without the threat of being captured and sentenced to a life of slavery. I live without this threat today, because of those who blaze the trail long before I set foot on this sacred ground hundreds of years later.
Harriet Tubman died in 1913, fifty years before I was born and five years before my paternal grandmother was born. I am reminded that freedom is young, and in today’s atmosphere, it is fragile. Whenever life gets hard, we should remember the fragility of our liberties and the hardships those who came before us endured, to secure it, for you and I.