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Follow Harriet Tubman's route in Delaware

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

Harriet Tubman rescued about 70 people who were enslaved in Maryland during the mid-19th century, led a military raid that liberated 700 more slaves during the Civil War and fiercely fought for the rights of women, minorities and people with disabilities.

Her legacy and work on the Underground Railroad have been memorialized by the Harriet Tubman Byway. The self-guided driving tour runs from Dorchester County, Maryland, through Delaware, ending in Philadelphia.

Drivers can follow the 98-mile route through Kent and New Castle counties to learn more about the freedom seekers and abolitionists who made American history. The following sites are included in the byway from south to north.

For more, visit http://harriettubmanbyway.org.

Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area

6693 Willow Grove Road, Camden-Wyoming

 Now an area for hunting and horseback riding, the Caulk Tract of the Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area was once a first stop for freedom-seekers as they entered Delaware.

The town Willow Grove was home to abolitionist Henry Cowgill and free black Underground Railroad conductor Samuel D. Burris. A historical marker at Route 10 and Willow Grove Road tells of how Burris helped enslaved people reach free states.

From here, they would follow routes through Dover, Smyrna, Blackbird, Odessa, New Castle and Wilmington.

Old State House

25 The Green Dover, DE 19901

While Delaware had a small population of slaves in the mid-19th century, it remained a slave state until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The courtroom saw trials of people who helped others escape. In 1847, Samuel D. Burris, a free man, was tried and convicted in Dover.

Burris escaped being sold into slavery when abolitionist friends sent a buyer to the auction. He later moved his family to California. On Nov. 2, 2015, Gov. Jack Markell pardoned Burris in the same courtroom where he was convicted 168 years earlier.

For more about tours and exhibits, visit The First State Heritage Park’s Welcome Center in the Public Archives building.

Blackbird State Forest

502 Blackbird Forest Road, Smyrna

While Harriet Tubman’s specific path and stops through the Smyrna area are still secret, she mentioned an area called “Blackbird,” which historians say could have referred to one or more of the free black communities within the Blackbird Forest area.

The 6,000-acre Blackbird State Forest gives an example of the landscapes that fugitive slaves and their guides would have encountered in Delaware. The forest is open to the public all year for walking, hiking, jogging and horseback riding.

Appoquinimink Quaker Meeting House

620 Main Street, Odessa

For nearly 250 years, this brick meetinghouse in Odessa has welcomed worshippers. Before 1860, Quakers welcomed freedom seekers in need of shelter on their journey from slavery. Recognized after extensive research into the activities of nearby Friends John Hunn and John Alston, the National Park Service accredited this Underground Railroad site.

Annual open house March 20, noon-5 p.m. Free.

Open first and third Sundays 10 a.m. for worship, group visits by arrangement. Grounds open daily.

Corbit-Sharp House

Historic Odessa Foundation, 201 Main Street, Odessa

Odessa stood in the middle of pro and anti-slavery movements. The Historic Odessa Foundation’s exhibit, “Freedom Seekers: The Odessa Story” highlights the role Quaker, abolitionists and free blacks played in helping slaves escape. In the 1840s, Mary Corbit hid a slave named Sam from a sheriff’s posse in the Corbit-Sharp House. At dusk, Daniel Corbit provided food and money and sent him north.

Historic Odessa is open to the public March through December: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday 1-4:30 p.m. and Monday by reservation.

New Castle Court House Museum

211 Delaware Street, New Castle

Abolitionist and Underground Railroad station master Thomas Garrett joined Odessa farmer John Hunn in helping the Hawkins family escape from Maryland in 1845. Hunn pleaded guilty and paid a crippling fine, but Garrett went to trial at the New Castle Courthouse.

Judge Roger Taney, then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the trial that found him guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Taney would later deliver the opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case that denied African Americans citizenship and civil rights.

Garrett paid a hefty fine and continued to assist thousands of fugitives until the beginning of the Civil War. In 1856, it’s recorded that Harriet Tubman, a friend of Garrett’s, hid a group of freedom seekers in New Castle as she tried to find aid in Wilmington.

Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30-4:30 p.m. It is closed Mondays and state holidays.

Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park

40 Rosa Parks Drive, Wilmington

The park honors two of Delaware’s most dedicated leaders of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett.

The park, often used for festivals and concerts, features a sculpture called “Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom,” installed in 2012. It overlooks the Market Street crossing of the Christina River, the main southern entry into Wilmington during the 19th century.

Visitors can walk or bike the one-mile Riverwalk and consider Tubman’s travels. In one story, she and her charges were trapped on the south side of the river because constables and slave catchers were guarding the bridge. Garrett sent a false-bottomed wagon, driven by African-American bricklayers, who concealed the group beneath a load of bricks. They successfully passed over unnoticed by authorities.

Center for African American Heritage at the Delaware History Museum

504 North Market Street. Wilmington

The Wilmington campus of the Delaware Historical Society features the stories of the Underground Railroad at Old Town Hall and the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage.

The Mitchell Center exhibition, “Journey to Freedom,” tells stories of Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett and African Americans who risked their lives to help others to freedom.

The center is connected to the Old Town Hall, which was briefly the site of abolition meetings and included jail cells that held freedom seekers before they were returned to their enslavers.

Tours are available. Both parts are open every Wednesday through Sunday from 12-5 p.m. Closed on holidays.

The Harriet Tubman Living History Experience

  • WHEN: Tuesday, March 10, 6-8 p.m.
  • WHERE: The Old State House, 25 The Green, Dover
  • WHAT: Actress Millicent Sparks will bring to life the noted Underground Railroad conductor in honor of National Harriet Tubman Day. She will interact with the audience in character, responding to questions about the abolitionist’s life in slavery, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. The program is organized by the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage at the Delaware Historical Society and partially funded by a grant from the Delaware Humanities.
  • MORE: Free but due to space restrictions, reservations are suggested: 302-744-5054. The museum will be open for visits and tours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.