Riding along freedom's route

Tour takes passengers to see historic sites used as part of the Underground Railroad in Howard

June 30, 2006|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Among the suburban developments and shopping centers of Columbia, there are still places -- manor houses, a church cemetery, a tiny riverside cave -- that recall a time when fugitive slaves traveled through Maryland as they escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

The Howard County Center of African American Culture started a series of riding tours yesterday to focus attention on historic sites related to the Underground Railroad that community members may pass every day without realizing the significance.

"You've heard about it, so much," said Jesse Paul Clay of Columbia. "But [it is different] when you actually see the sights and what they had to go through."

"You wonder how they made it," added his wife, Yvonne Clay.

Some tour stops -- such as Historic Oakland Manor, now owned by the Columbia Association, and the former Ralston House, now a private residence -- evoke a time when what is now downtown Columbia was a series of sprawling farms that relied on the labor of slaves.

The last stop on yesterday's tour was a three-story stone house once called Arlington House, which now serves as the clubhouse for the Fairway Hills Golf Club.

Wylene Burch, director of the culture center, told of how an anonymous slave built the structure, hauling stones up a scaffolding by hand, and was given his freedom when he was finished.

Other locations are believed by historians -- often relying on stories passed down by word of mouth -- to have been hiding places for slaves heading north.

At Locust United Methodist Church at Martin and Freetown Roads, Burch pointed to a small graveyard by a grove of trees and told those on the tour, "This is where it was said Harriet Tubman hid and slept one evening with a group of slaves."

Nearby, a spot commonly called an "Indian cave" is little more than a deep crevice in the rocky embankment across Harriet Tubman Lane from the Middle Patuxent River. One story says a group of slaves hid in the cave while being pursued by soldiers.

When one of the pursuers saw that a spider web at the mouth of the cave had not been disturbed, he is supposed to have believed the cave was empty and told his group to look elsewhere.

Further up Harriet Tubman Lane, near Cedar Lane, stands a house once owned by Quakers who gave shelter to Underground Railroad travelers.

William Ray of Odenton said he was impressed by the history that has been preserved.

The center has been planning to offer tours since it published a book in 2002 called Seeking Freedom: A History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland, Burch said.

Future excursions, to be scheduled, will take people to the eastern areas of the county, including Ellicott City and Elkridge, and to the western areas, including Cooksville and Lisbon.

"We have such a large collection of different nationalities come to Howard County," Burch said. "They are interested in the history."

The culture center, which is next to Historic Oakland Manor in Columbia, also has a research library, which is at Howard Community College.

But taking people directly to the historic sites proved to be a popular approach among the first tour participants.

"I didn't know I lived in such a historic place," Yvonne Clay said. "I had no idea."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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