Friday, July 21, 2017

At the Eastern Shore

When I was in the fifth grade I read my way through the history biography section of the Weldon Elementary School library.  I read the biographies of important Americans  in alphabetical order and especially looked forward to the stories of women.  There weren’t very many and I savored them.  Harriet Tubman’s biography was short, a fact I noted with dismay before I even got to the letter T and read her story.  What the story lacked in length it made up for in the power and courage of the tale.  From that read forward, I was fascinated with Harriet Tubman.  Adulthood hasn’t dimmed my interest.  Last weekend, T and I made the journey to the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park.

For the last week, my head has been spinning with thoughts about Harriet Tubman, her life, and her world.  If anything, Tubman’s story is more powerful to me today than it was when I was 10 and for the last seven days I’ve been writing and writing as I try to make sense of what I want to say about her.  This morning I realized that it’s going to take a few posts to get my thoughts in order.  The reason is quite simple: Harriet Tubman is an historical badass.

Born enslaved in 1822 and called Araminta as a baby, Tubman grew up in an unequal world on Maryland’s Eastern shore.  As one of nine children who would eventually be born to Ben and Harriet Ross, she was working by the time she was walking.  Enslavement on Maryland’s Eastern shore wasn’t the plantation system, but it was cruel in a different way.   Maryland slaveowners had farms  but many slaveowners treated the people they owned as investments and they hired out their slaves to be wage workers for other people and places.  Families were regularly separated by distances of 5 to 10 miles, sometimes more.

The Choptank River flows through the area into the Chesapeake Bay at Cambridge, Maryland and was a major influence on industry in the region.  With tributaries in the dozens, people in the region were familiar with water.  The waterways were part of life on the Eastern shore, moving people about. In addition, unlike the plantation South, there were plenty of free black men in the area.  Many worked on the ships that came from North; others were freemen who lived in the region, working the docks and other water-based jobs.  At the time of Tubman’s birth, these free and enslaved populations regularly mixed and even intermarried.

This landscape is central to the story of Harriet Tubman and that’s been my epiphany in the last week. I am also a person for whom place has always been important and as I think about Harriet Tubman’s life and accomplishments, I think of them in the context of place and people.  I plan to use Tubman’s story throughout the year in my 7th grade History class and as I plan those lessons, I will post my thoughts on this blog.

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