I knew when I went to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Dorchester County, MD before any of the exhibits were installed and still felt impacted by the visit, that it was going to be a remarkable place.
Open to the public in March, visitors will be immersed in Harriet Tubman’s life, legacy and landscapes through interactive exhibits following an overall theme of “The View North”. Everything, including the building’s construction and location, relates to the journey north that enslaved people took to reach freedom.
The amount of planning, care and respect that went into the symbolic design of the facility is awe-inspiring and quite emotional. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is a very, very special place.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
The stone and walls outside the visitor center represent the strong mental boundary of slavery.
The building’s zinc siding, which will patina and dull over time, symbolizes self-healing, and the hope that attitudes about slavery and race within our country will develop a healing patina in time as well.
As visitors enter the building on the south end, they’ll begin to leave the present and move into the past. The space is dark with narrow, closed-in hallways, and after viewing an introductory 10-minute film, “The Life and Legacy of Harriet Tubman”, they’ll enter the exhibit space. As they progress through the exhibits and move northward, the ceilings become higher, with more light until finally at the northernmost point, the building is full of glass and light — freedom.
The exhibits, which are designed to be more interactive than text-heavy, are broken down into three interpretive sections:
1. The Choptank River landscape and how the values of faith, family and community shaped Harriet Tubman into who she was
- Walk into an immersive egg-shaped theater which takes you through a day in her life in a span of 2-3 minutes.
- Understand how the free and enslaved communities worked and lived side by side, which enabled a communication network to open up with the north. That network allowed the Underground Railroad to thrive.
- See how Tubman learned her survival skills by working in the woods with her father, Ben Ross. Though she couldn’t read or write, she was very adept at orienting herself and reading the signs of nature.
- The immersive environment will make you feel as if you’re with her on one of the twelve documented rescue missions she made.
2. The resistance movement that brought her to national prominence
- Hear the rescue story of her three brothers and how they hid in the corn crib on Christmas day.
- Learn Harriet’s role in the Civil War – she was nurse, scout, spy and strategist.
- Discover Maryland’s role in the Choptank River region of the Underground Railroad.
3. Harriet Tubman’s modern-day relevance
- Harriet Tubman transcends race, gender, sex and religion, and this illustrates how regardless of your disadvantages, you can make decisions that positively impact your community and/or nation.
- In this area, we see what she did as a suffragist and how she established a home for the aged.
- When you reach the stained glass windows representing the seasons, take a moment for quiet reflection as the exhibit experience comes to an end.
Outside the visitor’s center is a legacy garden with 3/4 mile walking trails. The plants that grow along the winding and intersecting trails symbolize the uncertainty of choices along the Underground Railroad. Also outside the visitor’s center and tucked behind the administration building, is a pavilion and picnic area which can be enjoyed by visitors and reserved for special events.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center is a poignant and inspiring starting point for the other historical sites along the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and All American Road. As you travel and see the same landscapes Harriet Tubman saw on her many journeys north, you’ll experience a true sense of place and an unmistakable emotional connection.
(Tip: During my visit to Dorchester County, I learned of the most amazing Harriet Tubman biography you’ll likely ever find: Bound For the Promised Land by Kate Clifford Larsen. If you want to read a richly detailed and powerful portrait about this brave, selfless and courageous woman, this is it. It’s an excellent and fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.)
For more information on Dorchester County and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, here’s a list of resources to help.
If you have more time, here are some fun suggestions for things to do in nearby Salisbury MD and Wicomico County.