Bill would lift legacy of runaway slaves Adding Underground Railroad sites seen as boon to Maryland

June 12, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The National Park Service lists only two sites in Maryland on its register of historic places where runaway slaves were helped to freedom on the Underground Railroad: the President Street rail station and the Orchard Street Church, both in Baltimore.

Another location -- a national historic landmark -- is Kennedy Farm in Washington County, the headquarters for abolitionist John Brown before his raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

But if Congress passes a bill to give the National Park Service $500,000 a year to preserve the routes and legacy of the Underground Railroad -- considered the nation's first civil rights movement -- scores of other local stops on the freedom trail would likely be added to the list.

Maryland is one of 29 states that would benefit from the legislation that aims to link sites along the route, establish educational centers and otherwise commemorate the 19th-century campaign that surreptitiously ferried slaves from Dixie to Canada.

This week, the House of Representatives voted 415-2 to approve the bill. Senate sponsors of the legislation used the House vote to urge quick approval of the measure and its forwarding to President Clinton.

Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun, an Illinois Democrat, and Mike Dewine, an Ohio Republican, co-sponsored a bill nearly identical to the House measure. Their aides said the senators hope to get the Underground Railroad Network bill passed before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

The legislation would be of particular help to Baltimore, where for several years now, politicians and business people have tried to boost black tourism and tap into the estimated $30 billion that African-Americans spend annually on heritage tours.

This year's state budget gave Baltimore $1.6 million to create an agency to develop an African-American Museum.

"We know there was much activity in Maryland, because it was a border state," said Marie Tyler-McGraw, a Park Service historian.

Docks were used

"Many, many slaves went through Baltimore, the docks were a constant site of escaping. But documenting these records should be and will be a local effort. Right now, we try to put people in touch with each other," she said.

Anthony M. Cohen, a local Underground Railroad expert so enamored of the story that he re-enacted one slave's train journey from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in a shipping crate, said that in Maryland you can throw a rock in almost any direction and hit something significant to the escaped slave experience.

"Just in Montgomery County I was able to identify about 35 different places related to the Underground Railroad," said Cohen, a Silver Spring historian. "The C&O canal, which isn't in the current Parks Service study, was an escape route for slaves.

"And then there was a black woman who lived in Cockeysville. She was an herb doctor and a spiritualist who gave advice to slaves and local whites," said Cohen.

Creek along railway

"She sent one group of slaves up a creek that follows the old North Central railway and others directly up the rail line. Today people use it as a bicycle path from Maryland to Pennsylvania. Nobody knows they're biking along the Underground Railroad."

Similar stories abound about the Underground Railroad -- which was neither a train nor underground, but a network of secret routes in which slaves were aided by abolitionists known as "station masters."

A cemetery in Woodlawn holds the remains of Nicholas Smith, believed to be a station keeper on the journey.

There are at least a half-dozen other easily documented sites, Cohen said.

The Howard County Center of African American Culture believes there may have been a stop in Ellicott City. A log cabin near an Elkridge stream was visited by Harriet Tubman as the native of Bucktown on the Eastern Shore helped more than 300 slaves escape.

If the bill passes, Tubman's birthplace near Cambridge -- now nothing but a dirt field -- could become one of the project's research and visitors' centers.

"This is a good bill [to get started], but we're interested in something more substantial," said Anthony Caligiuri, an aide to Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore.

"We'd like to see acquisition of some of these sites by the government, Harriet Tubman's birthplace, for example. It's nothing but a sign on an empty lot now. There's a lot of other old homes still in existence here from the 1850s that were stops on the railroad."

Local effort urged

"More needs to be done on local levels, not just the giant sites," he said.

Cohen agrees that the Underground Railroad was the nation's first civil rights movement. And he thinks preserving something more than a century old can speak to people today who take personal freedoms for granted.

"You find examples of every different ethnic group helping slaves to freedom," he said. "Native Americans, whites, blacks, Jews, Hispanics. I even found a Chinese man in the abolitionist movement. The whole ideal of helping people in an hour of need is something people want to believe is a value in themselves.

"If people could break with protocol then, what are the possibilities today?"

Pub Date: 6/12/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.