‘Harriet’ renews focus on Delaware Tubman byway spots

The Old State House, built in 1792 to house the governing bodies of Delaware and part of the First State Heritage Park, is a stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which was formally established in 2009, (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

There’s a 95-mile stretch — winding from Sandtown up through Wilmington — that maps out the path that Harriet Tubman took through Delaware to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad.

Ms. Tubman’s journey from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Pennsylvania, guiding her enslaved family and friends to freedom in the mid-1880s, is now rendered through “Harriet,” a film directed by Kasi Lemmons, and starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role.

The film, now in theaters, depicts Ms. Tubman’s escape from a Maryland farm and her eventual return to free others through trips across the 100-plus mile route.

As the last slave state, Delaware was a critical leg to freedom. Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” led more than 3,000 freedom seekers through Delaware. (TNS photo)

In Delaware, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which was formally established in 2009, provides a framework to tell the stories of the Underground Railroad. The railroad acted as a network of those who assisted enslaved people in their escape to freedom in the North.

With the release of the film, Debra Martin, spokeswoman for the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware Byway, said there has been renewed interest in the route that runs through the state, with more people asking questions and noticing the byway signs along the route.

“She had to move through this landscape. She was headed through Philadelphia. To connect up, the easiest way is to go through Delaware,” Ms. Martin said, adding that letters and records detail her trips.

“So for 10 or 11 years, there’s a clear history of her passing through Delaware, and that’s a really significant part of her life. These are her rescue missions to get her family out of slavery in Dorchester and Caroline counties, [Maryland].”

The byway begins in Maryland and crosses over to Delaware at Sandtown. The route connects Camden to Dover and then heads north on Del. 15 to Middletown and Odessa before bearing east on Del. 299. The byway continues north to Wilmington on Del. 9, along Kennett Pike and into Pennsylvania.

The five segments that comprise the byway have points marked along the way that serve as educational opportunities for those following the route.

Camden Friends Meeting House, built in 1804, served local Quakers who were active in the Underground Railroad. John Hunn, a Quaker attended meetings here and is buried in the on-site graveyard at 122 E Camden-Wyoming Ave. (Delaware State NewsMarc Clery)

“We tried to choose things that represented both counties and places where there was maybe something to read, or there was an actual museum or somebody or some way to get more information about the story,” Ms. Martin said.

The Old State House in Dover tells the narrative of Samuel D. Burris and his trial, and The First State Heritage Park lays out the story of the Dover Eight, who were betrayed for reward money by their guide who left them at a Dover jail, where they eventually broke out and continued through Delaware to the North.

Through the state, Ms. Tubman made connections with Delawareans who provided aid to freedom seekers, such as Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, Burris and William Brinkley.

“It was a very important place for her to get through because she felt that she had people she could trust and she usually advocated really well,” Ms. Martin said.

Sarah Zimmerman, superintendent of the First State Heritage Park, said that with films about history, people often want to see where it happened. With “Harriet,” she hopes it will encourage viewers to want to “travel in her footsteps, travel where she went and see what she saw and experience what she experienced,” she said.

“People being able to see, feel, touch is really important.”

She noted that through the byway one can see the landscapes that Ms. Tubman would have traversed — the fields she would have crossed in Sandtown where one can easily be spotted — and also hear it put into historical context through other sites such as the First State Heritage Park.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet,” now in theaters. (Focus Features photo)

“It’s a really good partnership. It’s important to have all of those pieces together, to see that authentic piece and then talk to people who have a good understanding and know the historical background,” Ms. Zimmerman said.

The byway also helps connect travelers with other figures who aren’t as well known in history, and it brings them to the real places — some relatively unchanged in the last century — Ms. Tubman would have traveled.

“I think that when we have a national figure like Harriet Tubman, it is sometimes easy to forget that she was a real person,” Ms. Zimmerman said.

The Corbit-Sharp House in Odessa, which was built in the 1770s, is a designated Network to Freedom site. Mary Corbit Warner recalled that her father, Daniel Corbit, was known to be active in the Underground Railroad, and one morning her mother hid a fugitive in a crawlspace in the attic while men searched the house for him. (Submitted photo/Historic Odessa Foundation)

“Having something like the byway, where we worked not only with people from Delaware but people from Maryland too, to connect that story and bring a big idea down to a personal level, it enables people to see her as a human being, rather than a mythical figure larger than life. It’s important to be able to connect.”

For more information on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, visit https://harriettubmanbyway.org.

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