“Before the Civil War, African American Freedom Seekers fled north to freedom through a combination of people and landscapes that became known as the ‘Underground Railroad.’ As the last slave state, Delaware was a critical leg to freedom.” So states a Delaware Department of Transportation description of a route that slaves traveled to escape bondage in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The State of Delaware has officially created the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which stretches 95 miles from Sandtown to the Pennsylvania border. The Byway is a continuation of a 125 mile-segment that runs through Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland before reaching the Delaware border.
Along this route are points of interest replicating slaves’ experiences as they trekked this hazardous route northward. The Byway snakes its way through Dover, Cheswold, Smyrna, Middletown, Odessa, Port Penn, Delaware City, New Castle and Wilmington.
Sympathetic citizens along the Byway provided food and temporary shelter for the wretched travelers. Sites to visit that depict these unfolding events include the farmlands along Route 10 that recall the difficulties of the fugitives who traveled across open fields. Camden Friends Meeting House served Quakers who were active in the UGRR.
The Old State House is a stop in Dover where UGRR conductor Samuel D. Burris went on trial 1847 for his activities. Farther north, Blackbird State Forest includes 4,800 acres of land that once witnessed freedom seeker’s passing through its protective cover.
In Odessa, the Corbit-Sharp House is featured for its inhabitants that demonstrated courage by hiding a fugitive slave. Nearby is the Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House, thought to be a UGRR station.
The 1848 trial of Thomas Garrett and John Hunn for their extensive involvement in UGRR activities played out at the New Castle Court House — now maintained as a museum. Moving farther north, to Wilmington, Old Town Hall is the site of abolitionist meetings. Ironically, it is also the location of the city jail, which held captured freedom-seekers before they were returned to enslavement.
In 2012, the City of Wilmington dedicated a statue called “Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom” in honor of Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett. It is located at the foot of Market Street along the Christina River. The Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park is named for the UGRR heroine and hero: Tubman a fearless conductor and Garrett a devoted stationmaster.
Aids to traveling the Harriett Tubman Byway are available to the public. These aids include a map of the entire Byway route in Delaware and detailed individual maps for the Camden, Smyrna, New Castle and Wilmington areas.
Another aid for touring the Byway is a listing of places to visit, with a description of each, along with a map locating the stops by number along the route. In addition, a brief guide describes Delaware Underground Railroad Public Programs & Exhibits; places that are open access (e.g., parks) or have regular hours and staff, at stops in Seaford, Dover, Odessa, Old New Castle and Wilmington.
Of particular interest is the Corbit-Sharp House in Odessa. For a nominal fee, a docent escorts visitors on a one- or two-hour tour of the well-preserved grounds and buildings.
The main house is of Georgian-style architecture similar to plantation homes in the South. Yet, it was the abode of a Quaker family that found the institution of slavery to be abhorrent.
One day, a terrified escaped slave sought safe harbor from a sheriff and bloodhounds in pursuit. The quick-witted woman of the house, alone except for servants, immediately took him to the attic and told him to hide in a small crawlspace of the hip-roofed structure.
When the sheriff and a posse arrived at the house after learning the slave had gone there, the woman calmly permitted them to search the premises. They went through the house from top to bottom without discovering the slave’s refuge.
The family fed and clothed the slave and kept him secure overnight. The next day they took him to the main road to Pennsylvania. Later, a letter arrived from the slave, thanking the woman for aid in a time of distress, allowing him to gain his freedom.
Across from the Corbit-Sharp House is Cantwell’s Tavern (formerly Brick Hotel, c. 1822) that currently provides casual dining in a 19th century atmosphere. Restaurant proceeds support the Historic Odessa Foundation, whose executive director, Deborah N. Buckson can be contacted at (302) 378-4014 or Debbie.Buckson@historicodessa.org.
For more information about touring the Harriett Tubman UGRR Byway, contact Debbie Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more on the State of Delaware website at https://www.deldot.gov/information/community_programs_and_services/byway....
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at email@example.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.