They were eight strangers when they started, but two women brought them all together: a heroic figure who lived more than 150 years ago and a retired realtor who felt the power of the past more than ever today.
Linda Harris has been moved by the story of Harriet Tubman ever since her father gave her a biography of the Underground Railroad conductor when she was a child. Harris, 65, re-read the biography in May after the killing of George Floyd and she saw new and disturbing parallels, she says.
“I felt like my freedoms had been taken away, with the pandemic and the social injustice,” Harris, who lives in Mitchellville, MD, told the Washington Post. “The book was the impetus to do something, to act.”
Big Footsteps to Fill
Harris decided she wanted to trace Tubman’s 116-mile journey from her birthplace in Cambridge, MD., to Kennett Square, PA, where she ended her freedom walk. Through Facebook postings in various groups, she found seven other women who also wanted to honor Tubman, who delivered dozens of enslaved people to liberation between 1850 and 1860.
The eight woman who agreed to make the trek with her lived in the Washington D.C area and ranged in age from 38 to 65,. Over the spring and summer they trained together, developing their friendships along with their muscles.
With the help of the Harriett Tubman Museum and Education Center, Harris put together a rough approximation of the route Tubman took, and the eight women set off from Cambridge on the morning of Sept. 5th.
On the Path of Harriet Tubman History
The group, which called themselves We Walk With Harriett, started a Facebook page to document the trek. Over the course of walk, they averaged about 20 miles a day, and spent nights in hotels, where they tended to blisters and sore muscles.
The path took them on backroads, through neighborhoods, by historical markers, some of which related to Tubman’s work. At times, they danced to music along the way, sang, and chanted. One of the group carried a sign on her backpack that said simply, “We Walk With Harriett,” to let others know the purpose of their journey. in case anyone would question why they were there.
“We felt Harriet with us as we walked,” Harris told the Post. “We were amazed at how this woman was able to do this, to take on such a journey while being followed by dogs and guns and people who wanted to do her harm.”
“I could practically see our ancestors in the woods; I could hear them. I could see slave catchers and dogs, and I could really imagine what it was like to be traveling that way,” said Pauline Heard-Dunn, 57. “The more we walked, the more vivid it became.”
On one day, the group passed a home where several Confederate flags were displayed, which raised some alarm. But in a Facebook post, Harris reported, with relief, that there was nothing but warm interactions that day. “Among potential danger, love and kindness prevailed!” Harris wrote in her post. Actually the Facebook Page is filled with accounts of people along the way cheering them on and giving them money for food or drinks.
When the women reached their destination in Kennett Square, they were greeted by roughly 200 people, who came to celebrate their accomplishment. “I just broke down in big tears,” Harris said. “I was so overcome with emotion, thinking that we had made it, and thinking about how Harriet must have felt stepping across the line into Pennsylvania, into freedom.”
The event did more than fill the eight women and onlookers with pride and purpose; it also raised nearly $6,000 for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge.
The Journey Continues
“There are very few words to describe this experience,” Smith told the Post. “It was this spiritually driven walk with Harriet for freedom. One of the most powerful aspects is this ripple effect that we’ve created, with people showing up and trying to find us.”
The ripple effect continues. Harris has recently purchased a home in Cambridge, Md., which she plans to convert into “Camp Harriet” — a recreational center for children and adults to learn about Tubman’s life and bravery.
The group is also arranging a walk in March 2021 from Edward Pettus Bridge in Selma to Montgomery, tracing the famous march made by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and others 50 years ago. And in the fall of next year the women plan to do Harriet Tubman’s journey backwards, starting in Kennett Square, PA, and ending at her birthplace (a journey Tubman made when she went back to rescue her brothers).
Who wants to join them?