Neglecting our prominent past

History: Maryland had a significant role in the Underground Railroad, but many are unaware of the fact.

March 17, 2002|By Ted Widmer | Ted Widmer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chances are, no matter where you live in Maryland, you can look up at night and see the North Star from the same angle that a young Frederick Douglass gazed upon it from his birthplace, a slave cabin in Talbot County.

Chances are also that you have no idea where that birthplace is.

And why should you? It's not mentioned in most guidebooks. The historic marker calling attention to Douglass is not only antiquated ("Frederick Douglass, Negro Patriot"), it's in the wrong location, six miles away on a road between Easton and Denton. The real birthplace, by Route 303 and Lewistown Road, south of Queen Anne on the Tuckahoe River, has no sign and no visitors.

About half an hour south, in a rural part of Dorchester County, the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, is equally desolate. Here, at least, the sign is in the right place, though it, too, has seen better days; the small type indicates it was put up decades ago by the Civil War Centennial Commission.

Cut to Cincinnati, where work is going strong on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a massive building project on the shore of the Ohio River, nestled between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. The center, projected to open in summer 2004, has a price tag of $102 million and counting, paid by generous corporate backers - especially Procter & Gamble - and $16 million from federal coffers.

What's wrong with this picture? On the surface, nothing. The idea of a serious museum devoted to slavery is long overdue. It's great that Cincinnati, with its racial turmoil in the past few years, has come together over this project, and it's nice to see the private sector get behind it. But a dangerous misperception is taking root - that Cincinnati was the headquarters of the sprawling network of escape routes once known as the Underground Railroad, and Maryland merely a remote theater. Sadly, Maryland's neglect of its past has fed this view.

To be fair, Cincinnati claims several important footnotes in the story. Harriet Beecher Stowe was living there when she penned Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851. The Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, the self-styled "President of the Underground Railroad," lived there intermittently, and the Ohio River was celebrated as "the River Jordan" by slaves fleeing from Kentucky.

But there are problems with the grandiosely titled National Underground Freedom Center. First, it's an oxymoron to call any place the "center" of the Underground Railroad - a distended network of secret contacts that was by definition decentralized. There are hundreds and probably thousands of Underground Railroad sites scattered widely across the northern United States and Canada (at least 69 have been found in New York). Cincinnati's claim also relies uncomfortably on works of fiction (Stowe drew material from Maryland and Delaware sources). And in one important sense, the Ohio claim pales in comparison to Maryland's. By highlighting Stowe and Coffin, the Freedom Center elevates the achievements of whites who helped slaves rather than the slaves who freed themselves.

Maryland's connection to this history speaks for itself. Last month, PBS aired the film Whispers of Angels, which documented the rich history of the fabled "Eastern Line" of the railroad, funneling people from the eastern shore through Wilmington to Philadelphia. Fortunately, there are people working hard to keep Maryland's Underground Railroad alive. Like the original conductors, they are scattered, under-funded and fiercely loyal to their cause. In Cambridge, a downtown storefront at 424 Race St. houses the Harriet Tubman Association, a coalition of locals who sell knickknacks and show videos. March 9 was Harriet Tubman Day, and about 20 people were gathered to renew the faith with a short lecture and tours of Tubman sites in the region.

Some efforts to explore Maryland's African-American history bear promise. The Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture is moving forward, though with far less funding than Cincinnati. The state supports the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, and has appointed a commission to study slavery (though no money has been apportioned). Some innovative African-American history brochures have been printed by the state and county governments.

But we could do so much more. After Babe Ruth, Frederick Douglass may be Maryland's most famous native son. Tubman is nearly as well known. Catherine Clinton, the Mark W. Clark Professor of History at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, is writing a biography of Tubman, and professes herself "shocked" by the lack of awareness of a history many states would envy.

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