The irony was not lost on me. To have visited the brand-new Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, the day before the Supreme Court struck down the Roe Vs Wade decision. You see, before that day, the notion of an “underground railroad” was a term from the history books. In social media, and on the news, I’ve been hearing the term more and more, and comments about the need perhaps for a new “underground railroad. But rather than going into that right now, let me go into the story of a courageous African American woman named Harriet Tubman. What is it about history, they say, about it repeating itself?
“All aboard,” shouted Ross, our tour “conductor” for the 12-noon tour of the recently renovated Howell House on Lafayette Street in Cape May, now the Harriet Tubman Museum. Tall, with a booming voice, Ross gathered the 50 or so of us in the foyer of the museum and welcomed us with a delightful balance of humor and gravitas. A sickly child and later still as an adult, Harriet Tubman was not able to do the hard field work of a slave, but instead was rented out by her owner to various locations to assist in the kitchens, or in other light duties. Her knowledge of travelling came in handy when upon learning that she may be sold by her owner, she escaped and arrived in Philadelphia where she worked to save enough money to return and help other slaves escape. Records differ, but on average, she made around 13 trips, travelling over 10,000 miles, and assisting with rescuing approximately 140 during the eight or so years the railroad was in operation.
Ross escorted us through the home, with rooms and galleries documenting not only Tubman’s activities and life, but the history of the Cape May community during that time and the slave trade since the 1600’s. In 1852, Tubman worked as a cook in Cape May, and in the fall of that year, she left the state, crossed the 16-mile Delaware Bay, and rescued nine slaves, escorting them up to Canada. Tubman had the assistance of underground railroad supporters, like Stephen Smith who bought his freedom, became wealthy in the railroad business, and even built secret compartments in the train cars for slaves to hide.
Among the items on exhibit were slave shackles used to bound their hands and feet, newspaper clippings, and short films documenting the lives of African American leaders of the time, like Frederick Douglas, and the white abolitionists who supported the cause. In a spirited performance, complete with pointer, Ross would smack items on the walls, or the exhibit cases themselves to emphasize a point. (Though, he did say that we should not be too impressed with his prop as it came from a 1970’s Dodge Rambler – at which time he collapsed the pointer illustrating his point.)
Harriet Tubman weighed less than 100 pounds, standing just about five feet tall. A childhood injury left her with seizures, and other brain injuries, so was not an attractive slave purchase. When she freed herself, she was only 29 and could have enjoyed a quiet and relatively comfortable life in Philadelphia, however, when the Civil War began, Tubman joined the Union Army where she worked as a spy, cook and nurse, using her knowledge of herbal medicines on the wounded soldiers and slaves; almost 80 years later a WWII ship would bear her name: the SS Harriet Tubman.
She died in March of 1913, not quite 100 years old. At one point, she was asked about her success freeing slaves via the underground railroad, and replied, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
The museum was opened on June 19, 2021, and roughly 14,000 visitors have come through its doors in just the past year.
For ticket and schedules, visit harriettubmanmuseum.org.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff