Exhibit traces Maryland's resistance to slavery

Highlight is engraving of Harriet Tubman leading Eastern Shore slaves to freedom

Culture

February 04, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Between 1830 and 1860, as many as 60,000 African-Americans held as slaves in the South attempted to flee to freedom in the North. Many of them traveled through Maryland, the northernmost Southern state.

Running away was one of the most visible - and, for slave owners, one of the most costly - ways blacks resisted enslavement.

Resistance to the "peculiar institution" is a central theme of At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, the jointly organized exhibition that opened yesterday at the Maryland Historical Society and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Students from George Ciscle's exhibition design course at the Maryland Institute College of Art collaborated on preparations for the show.

Much of the exhibition is based on the research of historian T. Stephen Whitman, whose book, Challenging Slavery In the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865, will be published by the historical society this year.

Through period artworks, artifacts and documents, as well as contemporary artworks that reflect on the past, the show explores how slavery - and blacks' resistance to it - was decisive in shaping not only Maryland history but that of the nation.

Among the historical artworks and artifacts on display are implements of bondage, such as the shackles and spiked iron collars used to punish slaves who ran away; period paintings and engravings that describe how master and slave were taught their respective roles from childhood; and objects such as furniture and other domestic items created by skilled slave laborers who, because they could support themselves independently as craftsmen, often were most apt to run away.

One of the most dramatic 19th-century images in the exhibition is an engraving of Harriet Tubman leading a group of fugitives out of bondage in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1857.

The group arrived safely in Philadelphia, where they were aided by black abolitionist William Still and local anti-slavery advocates.

Tubman herself had fled from the Brodas plantation on the Eastern Shore nearly a decade earlier, in 1849, after learning that she and her brothers were about to be sold.

For two weeks, traveling on foot, she made her way north along the Choptank River into Delaware, hiding along the way in safe houses owned by sympathetic Quakers before reaching Philadelphia and freedom.

Over the next decade, Tubman made more than a dozen trips back to Maryland to rescue family members - including her sister, brothers and elderly parents - along with others still held in bondage.

The Tubman image, which is owned by the Maryland Historical Society and is on display in the exhibition there, depicts a bedraggled band of runaways that includes men, women and children slogging through a heavily wooded area in driving rain.

The scene re-creates one of Tubman's most spectacular escapes, during which she "conducted" more than two dozen runaways, including several relatives, to freedom along the secret network of escape routes known as the Underground Railroad.

Tubman was one of the most famous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, and at one point slave owners in Maryland put a $50,000 bounty on her head. But she was never betrayed or captured, though she frequently appeared in public at anti-slavery and women's rights meetings and was sought after as a speaker.

Tubman was known for her fearlessness and determination. She was said to carry a rifle that she used not only for protection against hostile whites, but also to intimidate the faint of heart among her own group who might betray vital secrets about her methods if captured alive.

The Tubman engraving is taken from Still's The Underground Railroad, a monumental, 700-page account published in 1872 describing how he and others helped runaways from Maryland and Virginia reach freedom in Canada.

Still, a Philadelphia-born free black man, published his book after the Civil War, when other former "conductors" and "station masters" of the Underground Railroad finally were able to reveal their activities before the war.

Their efforts and those of the runaways they assisted had sharpened the conflict between North and South that ultimately led to the destruction of slavery after the Confederate defeat.

African-Americans' resistance to slavery thus made them agents in their own liberation who contributed directly to the watershed events that changed the course of Maryland history and that of the nation.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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