Failure is our brand: Harriet Tubman on the Eastern Shore

Harriet Tubman Walking Tour

The story of Harriet Tubman in Seaford, Del. is fraught to the point of comical, and it isn’t one I’m going to recount here except to say that it was the premise for one of the oddest walking tours I’ve ever taken. 

It was hot enough that I regretted doing the professional thing and wearing slacks. A lot of times when I’m out covering touristy things I don’t mind blending in; when I’m taking pictures on the boardwalk, say, or covering a fishing excursion. In this case, though, it just felt wrong until the afternoon heat didn’t burn off the way I had hoped. Still, we were by the Nanticoke River and there was a breeze and that wet green smell that promises eventual relief. 

Downtown Seaford looks as if it should happen, but it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. It has a riverwalk and some fancy new condos, but it’s a former industrial town that tried too many solutions after DuPont shuttered its textile plant and the box stores set up shop outside of town.

The opportunities feel there, like if it just got one break the town could pop. I don’t see it, though. As active living communities carve up its countryside, the city, such as it is, appears to be set for “industrial.” The apparent hope is that the solid mid-20th century infrastructure will eventually entice a conglomerate. 

The downtown is an assortment of church thrift shops and convenience stores, a public health clinic, one fine dining restaurant and the Seaford Museum, which took up residence in the former post office. It is one of the bright spots in the town’s history of bad guesses. Seaford was fortunate enough to get a shiny new post office. From a birds-eye view it looks as if it were sucked out of town by the wave of commerce making its way to the Walmart, but settled just shy of where the real traffic was. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that the new post office is more efficient, easier to maintain, all of those things. It just feels like it was the last reason for people to visit or even recognize that there was a downtown. Although, come to think of it, many of them must. Pretty much all the towns around here have suffered the same kind of Walmart suck and whenever it’s appropriate people will say things like, “It’s by the old post office” assuming that the person asking for directions remembers where the old post office was. 

Inside the Seaford Museum

Just sitting here holding my hearing aid and reading my newspaper by electric light but reminding you that candle light was still an important part of life.

All of that said, the historical society is kind of a credit to the place (leaving aside the Ross Plantation, the lovingly-preserved home of the once-governor who spent the Civil War in England while his kids fought for the South for another time).

I found the museum itself curiously delightful. It is earnest in a way that usually bothers me, different vignettes of manikins enjoying 19th century life with the artifacts sometimes jammed into scenes and the scenes sometimes convoluted to incorporate artifacts. But, again, they were constructed with care and pride and this belief that Seaford’s history is worth preserving that would have taken all the fun out of being snarky. 

The Tubman event was a big deal. This is not a museum that gets much traffic outside of a dribble of surprised tourist between programs conducted for the local school district. By the time we were set to go, I would have put our group at something close to 25 and I feel like I want to say that Black families made up the bulk of our number. I don’t know what it means, if it means anything, that I noted it, only that I have my own prejudices when it comes to Delmarva’s weird and continuing relationship with segregation and being part of a diverse crowd made the coverage feel more real. 

Jim Blackwell, who curates the museum, gave the tour. He speaks on Tubman a lot and was comfortable and engaged. The difficulty of the Tubman walking tour (if there can be said to be one at all) is that the Seaford she came to is no longer there. Except, of course, for the river. It’s only a block or two down to the water from the museum’s front door. Standing on the section of riverwalk at the bottom of the hill, the blessed breeze took made it feel like the spring night it was rather than the summer day it was pretending to be. 

He explained the way that people used the rivers and the trains and how, coming up from Cambridge, Md. on at least one occasion, Harriet Tubmen spent the night in Seaford. 

Like any good educator, Blackwell fielded questions and offered anecdotes as we walked. In the lulls he spoke more biographically about Tubman’s non-Seaford adventures. 

Harriet Tubman on the Shore

Cambridge Maryland, Tubman’s birthplace, has really embraced their infamy in a way I don’t think they really understand. To be clear, I am over the moon that they were able, after years of hard work and fundraising and begging politicians for dimes, to build the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge. It is wonderful and valuable. 

But I’m always a little suspicious of the pride that goes along with it. Like, Cambridge was such an awful place to live that it made an illiterate slave change history. I know it isn’t bumper sticker material, but it’s as if there’s no culpability in what made (and continues to make) Cambridge a less-than racially equitable place.

The Seaford tour was not nearly as tone-deaf to the complexities of showing off a place where people would come to hunt down Blacks (free or escaped) and send them off to be sold. In fact, Blackwell leaned on it a bit, which is why the story sticks with me. At one point, someone point-blank asked Harriet Tubman if she was famed-emancipator Harriet Tubman and she said, “No,” which apparently was sufficient.* If I recall correctly Blackwell suspects she did it a couple of times before she decided her luck might run out and took a different route (although there’s not specific documentation on other trips).

*Some locals verified her letters of transit

The cocktail-party version of this story features less-than-sensative jokes about how Seaford reserved its place in history. And I don’t mean to discount for a second how Tubman was able to play them and others who may nearly have caught her. The sheer ballsiness of it is mind-blowing. But something still sticks in my guts about it, this slavery tourism, and about Tubman in particular.

I think about the Harriet Tubman problem a lot. I think we often have this sense that celebrating people for being strong and brave somehow excuses the circumstances that facilitated it. It’s not that I don’t think the places that raise up Black history are doing good work, but I wonder, as we tear down statues of people we should be ashamed of, whether we really think it provides us with some exoneration. I worry that the more caught up we get in how good we are for pointing to the sins of the past, the easier it will be to slip back into the inequitable present and say we’ve done our best. 

If you want to hear more about Cambridge and Harriet Tubman, we elaborate on this episode: