The 2019 movie Harriet may have dramatized Harriet Tubman’s famous work to free enslaved individuals, but what is lesser known is that Maryland was the epicenter of  activity on the Underground Railroad – the loose network of safehouses and routes north to freedom. Indeed, Maryland has the highest documented number of successful escapes in the entire country, a fact that is memorialized statewide every September with the governor-proclaimed International Underground Railroad Month, which began in 2019.

“Maryland has attractions, historical sites, and programming that recognize the brave men, women, and children who traveled along the Underground Railroad to freedom and those who assisted them,” said Governor Larry Hogan in a recent press release. “While we recognize September as International Underground Railroad Month, every day Maryland honors those who embrace the right to self-determination and freedom.”

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Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe. New exhibits are set to open on September 1 © Talbot County

The kick-off event

This year, the unveiling on September 1 of a new visitor experience at Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe in Talbot County is the kick-off event. Yes, the celebrated abolitionist, orator, and author was from the Eastern Shore, too. Born at Tappers Corner, he went on to help enslaved individuals escape along the Underground Railroad from his home in New York.

“In his autobiography, Douglass said he was born in Tuckahoe,” said Cassandra Vanhooser, director of Talbot County Economic Development and Tourism. “His international legacy all started here in Talbot County. Without his beginning here, nothing would have happened.”

Four interpretive panels, the first interpretive elements to be installed in the otherwise wild park, will give an overview of Douglass’s life.

“We take you step by step through his journey here and on to the larger world,” Vanhooser said.

The park, with future plans to add overlooks and walking trails, is found along one of four Frederick Douglass byways that span from the Eastern Shore to Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.

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Tubman and others had to flee through the area that as is now known as the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge © Maryland Office of Tourism

A variety of events and experiences

COVID-19 has put a damper on other events this year, though Cambridge is stepping up with its “Day of Resilience” celebration on September 12, focusing on a traveling statue of Harriet Tubman that will remain at the Dorchester Courthouse for 30 days. Maryland State Archives has virtual programming directed by Alex Haley’s nephew, Chris Haley, who is the director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland.

New this year is a push for outdoor experiences, including kayaking and biking at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge through which Tubman fled. Those experiences also include hiking and biking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, a transportation route for individuals escaping slavery and a destination point.

The good news is that the state’s 85 Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, selected by the National Park Service, are open year-round (though double-check during the pandemic), providing ample opportunity to explore this important history – a fact that International Underground Railroad Month promulgates. Starting September 1, the National Park Service will release National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Digital Passport Stamps in honor of International UGRR Month to facilitate virtual tours as well. 

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Mural of Harriet Tubman by artist Michael Rosato © Maryland Office of Tourism

Many of the sites cluster on the Eastern Shore, including those along the 125-mile, self-guided Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway that follow in the footsteps of this legendary abolitionist’s own escape in 1849 as well as others whom she helped lead to freedom. Among the sites are the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, a state-of-the-art complex in Church Creek that delves into Tubman’s story. There is also the Bucktown Village Store in Cambridge, where she received a blow on her head for defying authority that would affect her the rest of her life; the store is now a museum. Don't miss the Greenboro Christian Park, either, on the Choptank River headwaters where Tubman likely crossed into Delaware to freedom. You can get the audio guide here.

Beyond the Eastern Shore, among the many interesting sites is the new Hagerstown Underground Railroad Trail, which offers an urban trail to sites including the Hollingsworth house, which remembers the daring escape of the Cummens family. In Montgomery County, the Underground Railroad Experience Trail at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park commemorates a historic Quaker town that served as a major Underground Railroad waypoint. And in Annapolis, the Banneker-Douglass Museum is dedicated to preserving Maryland’s African American heritage.

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Woodlawn Manor House was built in the 1800s © Courtesy Visit Montgomery

The Underground Railroad beyond Maryland

The hope is to expand International Underground Railroad Month in other states – and even countries. Since Maryland started the initiative last year, North Carolina, Missouri, and Kansas have announced their own proclamations; New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Kentucky have proclamation requests in their governor’s offices; and all of those states plus Massachusetts, Florida, and Indiana are offering special programming as well.

For more information and to plan your journey, visit the state website on the Underground Railroad in Maryland.

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