Exploring escapes of slaves

Book: Howard County was a key route on the Underground Railroad because of its waterways and geography.

September 05, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Center of African-American Culture just published a book that looks at 200 years of race relations in the county with a focus on its ties to the Underground Railroad.

It turns out Harriet Tubman secretly brought groups of fugitive slaves searching for freedom through the area on their way north, stopping at various safe houses -- many owned by Quakers -- and hideaways in the county such as Locust United Methodist Church Cemetery and an underground cave off of what is now Cedar Lane.

Written by the center's staff and team of researchers, Seeking Freedom: A History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland explores the history of slavery within the county, which in 1860 had a higher concentration of enslaved blacks than the state as a whole, and the people who worked to eradicate it.

Wylene Burch, the center's executive director and the book's champion, talks about the importance of keeping this history alive:

How did the book come about?

During the last few years we began doing research on the Underground Railroad, and there was so much history, we decided to turn it into a book and make this one of our main projects. We had a consultant come in and talk to us about how to go about it. Then we went to libraries and archives and all around to the different sites. We also visited several important people and interviewed them about the history. It took us a good four years.

Why is this an important story to tell?

Because it's the history of our people and families -- our ancestors and how they came over here to America and became servants of the community. The things that they did are amazing. They were very intelligent people, or they wouldn't have come over here. [Slave traders] picked only the best people. They were inventors. They were carpenters. They had so many different trades; they helped build America.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from your research?

How those people lived and how they were able to escape. They had to go through so much just to live and then to gain their freedom. They had to go through the swamps, through the canals at nighttime, but they had wonderful people helping them along the way, like the Quakers and the other people in the North.

What role did slaves play in developing Howard County?

They built it. All of these buildings built in the 1700s, they must have used the slave trade to build them. With all that heavy cement? Those people really struggled and worked and developed that area. There are so many great buildings in Howard County, these old mansions and things like that, slaves did that.

Why was Howard County part of the Underground Railroad?

Geographically, it was in the right place because they came up through Maryland and went north. Harriet Tubman brought her group right through this area and went through the different waterways to reach the northern area of the country.

What was an Underground Railroad escape like?

They had to plan their route and then they had someone to guide them. The majority of the time, they would travel by foot, and the only time they were able to travel was at nighttime so they wouldn't be seen. They'd stop along the way at various homes of people who wanted to assist them and hide in the cellars and things like that until dark. Some would wait in the swamp areas and woods and in caves until it was time to leave. Once they reached their destination, which was the free country up north, particularly Canada, they were able to get their freedom and work.

What can people learn from the book?

It's such an interesting story. When the children read these stories, even when adults read these stories, and see the hardship that the people had to go through to become free, it helps them appreciate their freedom that much more. Think of the struggle that those people had, the things that they had to come through. We are very lucky in comparison.

"Seeking Freedom: A History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland" is available for $31.50 at the Howard County Center of African-American Culture in Columbia. Information: 410-715-1921.

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