- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park
Driving toward Easton, Maryland, I felt a wariness grow inside me. This is the land to which Dana, the protagonist of Octavia Butler's novel Kindred, was repeatedly and inexplicably transported. In this 1979 novel, Dana, a young black woman living in 1976 California, is catapulted back in time to antebellum Maryland. She lands on the Weylin plantation, where she finds herself in a complex and entangled relationship with the white and black families of this Chesapeake farm. Throughout the novel, Dana learns that Rufus Weylin, the son of a white slaveholding family, pulls her into the past each time he finds himself in dangerous situations, and that the well-being of Dana's enslaved ancestors hinges on her responses to Rufus's erratic behavior.
Butler chosen Easton for this fictional story, describing the landscape and built environment—the red-brick Georgian Colonial "big house" and the log slave cabins, the fields and forests, the roads and nearby river—of this Eastern Shore plantation between the 1810s and 1830s. Her descriptions, which attempt to capture the early nineteenth-century sensory experience and violence endured by a black woman alive during the country's bicentennial, illuminate the details that the archive often shrouds in silence. These silences are even more deafening by the sprawl of Easton today, much of which masks the historic landscape. When Dana, freed of her nineteenth-century time travels, visits the city in 1976, she and her husband "found Burger King and Holiday Inn and Texaco and schools with black and white kids together." Upon retreating to the countryside to find evidence of the Weylin plantation, they identified "a few of the old houses. A couple of them could have been the Weylin house. … But Rufus's house was gone. As nearly as we could tell, its site was now covered by a broad field of corn. The house was dust, like Rufus." 1
On my travels to Easton in early March 2020, I, too, found the landscape of Dana's enslaved labor largely devoid of the antebellum one Butler described. The flat coastal plain of this city is now paved with strip plazas and chain restaurants. It is only on the outskirts of Easton that passersby today may glean something of the historic landscape. Crops—mostly corn and soy, for [End Page 979] commercial purposes—sprawl for thousands of acres until they reach the edges of mixed hardwood forest. Elsewhere, private landowners manage the forests, where gangly loblolly pines are the prized lumber.
Easton was not my destination that day; instead, I headed to the visitor center of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, roughly twenty-five miles south. Opened in 2014, this park is nestled within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge comprises thirty thousand acres of marshland, mixed hardwood forest, and agriculture. While no traces remain of the plantations on which Tubman and her family were enslaved, or the homes in which they communed, slept, ate, and some were eventually freed, the museum staff consider the landscape their witness. The site is managed by the Maryland Park Service, and it is a stop on the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Museum staff build their narrative of Tubman's life and the extraordinary rescue missions she led on the marshy ground on which Tubman was raised and knew intimately.
The visitor center is the hub at which visitors begin before they have the opportunity to drive the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. A map with descriptions, oral history excerpts, and images accompanies drivers as they pass by dozens of sites of historical significance. Some of these include what once was the Brodess farm, where Tubman was enslaved, and historically black churches that continue to bring communities together over 150 years later. Visitors can also stop at the Bucktown Village Store, a restored nineteenthcentury building where Tubman was injured after an overseer threw an iron weight that accidentally hit her. The brain damage Tubman incurred caused her to live with epilepsy the rest of her life. These sites represent a commingling of past and present, where both physical evidence of the built...