Design for You: Thoughts on the New Harriet Tubman Center by Pamela Heyne

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The new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor center, on the edge of Blackwater Park in Dorchester County is a tour de force of drama and design. The heroine of the drama is Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in 1820. When she was 29 she escaped to Pennsylvania, and freedom. Yet, selflessly, she returned to Maryland 19 times and rescued 70 other slaves. These were mostly friends and family on what is termed the “underground railway.” She followed the north star to lead her followers to freedom, through fields, forests, waterways and safe houses.

The Baltimore firm GWWO Architects used the concept of traveling north as a symbol in their design for the Center. A “spine” leading north unifies a series of simplified barn like, LEED certified structures which contain a bookshop, ancillary spaces and most importantly exhibits describing Harriet’s life. Bronze sculptures by Maryland artist Brendan O’Neill Sr. are compelling…lifelike, yet because of the material, these figures have a grandeur. They avoid the kitsch aspect of so many other historical exhibits whose figures sometimes resemble giant dolls.

A particularly compelling statue for me was an image of Harriet as a child, forced to catch muskrats in the winter, wading in the water coatless and barefoot. Quotes of Harriet are interspersed in displays, showing her intense sadness as a child, crying for her mother’s bed, which in reality was not a bed at all but a wooden pallet. Yet, her resilience and bravery shine through the displays. We even see her guiding Union soldiers during the Civil War,

Projections also display poignant images from the time, babies being sold while mothers wept, newspaper ads for runaway slaves, and a slave child tending to a beautifully dressed white child. Harriet was able to rescue all but one sister. She carried a pistol with her, sometimes to inspire other escapees who were getting cold feet. As she said, she never lost a passenger, and the train never got off track. We learn also that she eventually settled in Auburn, New York, yet kept working to help others.

Image of Harriet catching muskrat

In a phone call with Senator Ben Cardin, the Senator expressed just how moving it was for him to see Tubman so gloriously celebrated. He said the center “will help people understand Tubman’s courage, and her relevancy today.” He mentioned that the project actually began with a request by Senator Sarbanes. Legislation passed to make it into a national park. Local problems were worked out, and Maryland provided numerous resources. Other key national players along with Sen. Cardin were Sen. Mikulski, Sen. Gillibrand, Sen. Schumer and President Obama.

I asked Senator Cardin just why the Center was placed at the entrance of Blackwater Preserve. He said, “You can learn about Harriet Tubman, then go see soaring eagles.” In her own way, Harriet, a petite woman, was a soaring eagle. Our area now has an inspiring new tourist attraction, amplified by a scenic driving tour, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Scenic Byway.

Pamela Heyne is an architect, head of Heyne Design in Saint Michaels, Md., and author of In Julia’s Kitchen, Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child. For more information about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor center please go here

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Letters to Editor

  1. Bill Anderson says:

    Nobody really cares about this subject or the expensive center built at my expense.

    • Well, I guess count me as a nobody. I’m looking forward to visiting the center and sharing the experience with my kids – what a great educational resource to learn about some of our local history that had such tremendous national implications. We’re lucky to have it nearby.

    • Hester Sachse says:

      This center is where I plan to visit on the first fine weather day when I have off from work. This is exactly the kind of thing that I want my money to go to. We cannot continue to grow as a civilization if we do not learn from and improve on our past.

    • Another nobody here. I care… and it’s part of OUR history… everybody’s. Even Mr Anderson’s.

  2. Francoise Sullivan says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with Bill Anderson’s comment. The new Harriet Tubman Visitors Center is a much needed reminder of how one person’s actions can make a difference. A reminder of what humanity and selflessness look like. Thank you to everyone involved in bringing the center to life. I look forward to visiting with my family.

  3. Jodi Bortz says:

    What an amazing and wonderful thing to have so close by. Harriet Tubman is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to visit and take my kids. We can never forget what horrible things the privileged class has done to oppress others. Courage!

  4. Marc Dykeman says:

    I’m so glad to see this finally completed. It’s a critical reminder of a history that some would like to see forgotten.

  5. Carla Massoni says:

    So pleased to see this new facility opening. I remember a wonderful story Leslie Raimond told me about visiting this area and looking for information on Harriet Tubman. There was none. Our history is our future. Can’t wait to visit!!

  6. Barbara Foster says:

    Harriet Tubman was one of the most heroic American women. How wonderful to honor her at a public facility in the midst of a beautiful recreation area. Those who enjoy this facility will come to understand why this public money is not wasted on public education – even the education delivered via a national park. The arts, recreation and education matters.

  7. Jennifer Friedman says:

    Mr. Anderson’s statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people care and I think the building of this Center is proof. What a beautiful tribute to a phenomenal woman. Field trip destination for sure.

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