Another Sliver of History Discovered?

By Zettler Clay

Source: Integration and Application Network

Chesapeake Bay historian Vince Leggett believes he has discovered a pivotal piece of history: Enslaved African-Americans used the bay to escape to freedom, as a part of the Underground Railroad.

As if the bay needed anymore patchwork in its rich historical quilt.

Whether this is true or not cannot be said for certain, but Leggett’s research lends considerable evidence that the bay was an enabler of freedom for enslaved African-Americans. It also destroys a “silent” myth about African-Americans not being adept at sailing boats in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Leggett writes on a childhood experience where he was in a school play about the Underground Railroad:

At one point, the teacher told us to pretend we were escaping from slavery by crawling through the woods on our hands and knees, with Harriet Tubman in the lead. While I did as instructed, I simply could not see how Harriet Tubman could have made it all the way to Canada without using a boat; every map I saw of Maryland’s Eastern Shore had water all over the place.

A couple of points give credence to Leggett’s claim:

  • Harriet Tubman was from Dorcester County, Maryland. She escaped from slavery when she was a teenager, and reportedly went back to rescue many of her family first. Dorcester County is considered the heart of the “Chesapeake Country.”
  • Frederick Douglass, who was born and raised in Maryland, wrote in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave that as a youth, he predicted that “this very bay shall yet bear me to freedom.”

Douglass didn’t explicitly state that the bay led him or thousands of African Americans to freedom. But history may say it for him.

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Bay on the Brink is a multimedia reporting project examining the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. It is produced by fellows at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism as part of News21, a consortium of journalism schools. This is the fellows' blog. The full project site is here: http://chesapeake.news21.com
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