Why these girls simply walked Harriet Tubman’s 116-mile journey from the Underground Railroad
Published in 1965, the children’s book chronicles Harriet Tubman’s heroic missions that led dozens of enslaved people to freedom through a network of secret passages and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad between 1850 and 1860.
When Harris read it again, the decade-old picture book made a deep impression on her.
“I felt like my freedoms were being taken away by the pandemic and social injustice,” said Harris, 65, who lives in Mitchellville. “The book was the impetus to do something, to act.”
She decided to visit Tubman’s birthplace and drive to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Dorchester County, Md. There she spoke to local historians who gave insights into Tubman’s life, first when she was enslaved, then as an underground railroad guide called a “conductor” and finally as a civil rights activist and advocate of the women’s suffrage movement.
Harris had an idea: she wanted to retrace Tubman’s footsteps along the subway and travel on foot from Cambridge, Md., To Kennett Square, PA – about 116 miles total.
“I wanted to imitate their way,” said Harris.
But she didn’t want to do it alone. Harris hoped to find others who, at a time of racist unrest, would also seek a connection to this era of history. She shared her mission on various Facebook pages, including GirlTrek and Outdoor Afro – organizations that aim to connect people of color with others for physical activity.
Harris formed a group of eight women who were otherwise strangers and were between 38 and 65 years old. The women, who all live in the DC area, trained together every Saturday during spring and summer.
“We had to learn to walk long distances and improve our endurance,” Harris said, adding that the women bonded early on.
“We’re definitely sisters,” said Pauline Heard-Dunn, 57. “Our walks gave me something to look forward to. They gave me meaning and it felt like I was connecting with my ancestors. “
“My friendship with these women is eternal,” repeated Kim Smith, 56. “There is a magnetic energy among us. We are inspired to keep moving.”
During the training, the women worked to decipher Tubman’s path, which turned out to be more difficult than they originally expected. Harris visited Cambridge and parts of Caroline County several times to pinpoint Tubman’s route as precisely as possible.
She learned that Tubman’s exact crossing along the marshy east coast of Maryland is not entirely clear. Tubman’s numerous hikes are known to have traveled from Dorchester County via Delaware to Philadelphia, which was part of a Free State. She escaped alone for the first time, but subsequently led several more missions on the same path and risked her life to bring an estimated 70 enslaved people to freedom.
According to a Tubman biography, “Bound for the Promised Land,” Maryland recorded 279 enslaved people as outliers in 1850 – more than any other state in the nation.
Harris consulted with William Jarmon, a professor who has volunteered at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center for over a decade. He showed her some of the historic sites along the 125-mile Tubman Byway, a museum-guided tour that consisted of 36 major stops.
“We helped her plan her trip,” said Jarmon, adding that interest in the museum has increased in recent months.
Harris also reached out to JOK Walsh, President of the Caroline County Historical Society, who has conducted extensive research into Tubman’s journey through Caroline County and into Kent County, Del.
“I examined old maps to find out exactly where she would have traveled. We looked at where the streets were and we planned things out logically, ”said Walsh.
“We knew Harriet had to avoid all of the populated centers and bridges where slavers were known to hang out,” Walsh continued. “We put all this information together and were able to make a very educated guess.”
Walsh gave Harris the contact information of a Philadelphia man, Ken Johnston, who had reached out to him a few months earlier in hopes of retracing Tubman’s steps down the Underground Railroad.
For the past three years, Johnston has taken civil rights-related walks: in 2018, he went to Memphis in honor of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of Selma, Ala.,. He also went from Belfast to Derry in Northern Ireland in 2019 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Burntollet Civil Rights March.
“I think everyone gets up and running for individual reasons,” said Johnston. “There is an internal call in your life that something needs to be changed.”
Johnston began his underground hike on December 24, 2019, walking 20 miles overnight from Poplar Neck, Md., To Denton, Md., In honor of Tubman’s rescue of her brothers on Christmas Day 1854. Johnston went the remaining 120 miles Philadelphia back at the weekend – he drove where he left off last weekend and drove back to his car at the end of the route – until he finally ended the trip on Feb.28.
He shared anecdotes and advice with Harris and promised to join the women for parts of their walk.
The group, called “We Walk With Harriet,” officially began the walk on September 5, traveling an average of 20 miles a day by the time they reached Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on September 10.
They launched a Facebook page to document the journey, which quickly garnered thousands of followers. The women also raised nearly $ 6,000 for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Cambridge Education Center.
“We felt Harriet with us as we left,” thought Harris. “We were amazed at how this woman could do this to make such a journey while being chased by dogs and guns and people trying to harm her.”
“I could practically see our ancestors in the forest; I could hear them. I could see slavers and dogs and really imagine what it was like to travel like that, ”added Heard-Dunn. “The more we went, the more alive it got.”
The group stopped at various historical markers along the way, including the Bucktown General Store in Cambridge, where Tubman was hit in the head weighing two pounds and caused lifelong damage after defying orders to give an enslaved person tie up.
“There are very few words to describe this experience,” said Smith. “It was that spiritually driven walk with Harriet for freedom. One of the most powerful aspects is that ripple effect that we created when people show up and try to find us. “
Along the way, the group met supporters who were inspired by the mission and offered food, water, and messages of encouragement. They stayed in hotels at the end of each day.
“Your walk was especially meaningful at the time because the echoes of the past keep getting louder,” said Johnston, who joined the group for the first 10 miles and the last 17 miles.
When they made the final stretch into Pennsylvania, nearly 200 people were there to cheer them on.
“I just collapsed in big tears,” said Harris. “I was so overwhelmed with emotion, thought we’d made it, and thought about how Harriet must have felt when he stepped free across the Pennsylvania border.”
After the walk was over, the women decided together that their mission had only just begun.
On October 9, they picked up where they left off, traveling from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia, until they culminated in the home of William Still – an abolitionist and fellow Underground Railroad contributor.
The group’s next walk is slated for March 2021, when they intend to take a 54-mile march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., To Montgomery, Ala., To celebrate the anniversary of Blood Sunday to celebrate the late representative John Lewis.
Harris, who recently retired from a 32-year career in real estate to focus on a second career as a jazz musician, said she found her true calling in the historical walks.
“This is what I promise to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “The very act of putting one foot in front of the other can attract so many people’s attention.”
Harris set up her savings and retirement funds to buy a house in Cambridge, Md., That she plans to convert into Camp Harriet – a leisure center for children and adults to learn about Tubman’s life and bravery.
To educate others, Harris decided to pass her beloved children’s book, Runaway Slave, on to her 12-year-old granddaughter so that she too could find inspiration in Tubman’s courage in the face of injustice.
“I gave it to her to continue the journey,” said Harris. “In the hope that one day she will take the walk herself.”