The Black Bucket List: Underground Railroad

Retrace the steps to freedom many escaped slaves made to the North.

A re-enactor at Belmont Museum
A re-enactor at Belmont Museum

One of the most poignant and emotional chapters in the colorful history of blacks in the New World is the saga of enslaved African Americans who chose to escape and make the perilous journey from the South to safer havens up North or in Canada. Usually traveling in the dark of night, often chased by angry slaveholders and armed bounty hunters, they relied heavily on guides to get them to safe houses, abolitionists’ homes, meeting houses and other places that would shelter them as they fled.

This network of havens began as far South as Fort Mose, Fla., a warren in St. Augustine for freed slaves from Georgia and South Carolina in the 1700s. The network stretched as far North to such locales as Northampton, Mass., where abolitionists Samuel Hill and Austin Ross sheltered escaped slaves before sending them to safety in Canada. In between, there were basements in Kentucky, secret rooms in homes in Maryland and churches in Pennsylvania, among other hideouts.

Almost a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the United States, many of the stops along this “Underground Railroad” remain remarkably well-preserved. They’re a rich opportunity for travelers to retrace the steps of escaping slaves. For the vivid insight it offers into one of the darkest chapters in African-American history, the Underground Railroad is one of the top destinations on The Root‘s Black Bucket List of places in black history every traveler should see before they die.

A lifelong student of African-American history, I recently revisited some of the best-known “stations” of the Underground Railroad. My sojourn started in Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland, along the Eastern shore of the state, where slaves fought hard to escape harsh conditions.

This is the stomping ground of Harriet Tubman, one of the “lead conductors” on the Underground Railroad. The Harriet Tubman Museum in the town of Cambridge, Md., tells her story. Born enslaved in 1822, she escaped 27 years later only to return to help usher an estimated 300 slaves to freedom.

Exhibits in the museum also offer details on the elaborate culture of the Underground Railroad and how different players collaborated to make it work. Certain songs gave signals to escapees. The popular spiritual “Wade in the Water” told them to abandon land and head for the river, where their tracks were harder to pick up. Symbols stitched into patchwork quilts told them whether it was safe to stop at a house.

Wandering Cambridge, it was easy to imagine Tubman — a spry, dark-skinned woman who always wore a head wrap — walking these streets, singing songs and aiding slaves who were ready to make a break.