As the sun began its downward descent on Dec. 24, lightly jingling bells could be heard, first in a Caroline County cornfield, then at the base of an ancient towering tulip poplar, later sparking surprise among cows, chickens and dogs along Poplar Neck Road, then birds roosting amid the marshy byway through to the Choptank River.
Although it was Christmas Eve, the bells weren’t guiding reindeer. They once again helped walking artist Ken Johnston steer clear of critters while making his way across a storied landscape. A wooden walking stick, crafted for him by his sister, lovingly named “Harriet’s Chariot,” also aided his journey.
Since 2017, Johnston has embarked on personal missions to raise awareness and understanding by literally following in historical footsteps of heroic ancestors. On this day, that pursuit had brought him to join with Linda Harris, director of programming and events for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, in leading a commemorative journey marking the place where Harriet Tubman risked all to lead her three brothers and others to freedom on Dec. 24, 1854.
The pair teamed up to guide 35 people traveling from as far away as Boston, New Jersey and Virginia to retrace three miles through forest and marsh in Caroline County’s Poplar Neck District. Up until the appointed 3 p.m. start time, Harris reported having to keep fielding calls and email from people eager to participate.
Billed as the Second Annual Walking with Harriet-Christmas Eve Escape 2021, the event was sponsored by the Tubman Center in Cambridge.
After making her own escape to freedom in 1849, Tubman courageously came back to the area to rescue her niece and children from being sold. In 1851, she returned once more to Dorchester County, leading a group to Canada where they’d be outside the reach of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required even free states to return runaway slaves. In 1854, upon learning that her brothers Ben, Robert and Henry were to be sold at auction from the Thompson Farm in Caroline County, Tubman again risked all to return and shepherd others on a harrowing journey to safe harbor.
Both co-leaders have each been blazing trails in the practice of immersive historical walking as a way to honor visionary leaders and educate people about their lives and work.
Last year, Harris initiated the first Christmas Eve Escape Walk, starting at the former Thompson Farm in 24-degree temperatures, continuing through pouring rain, until reaching the Tubman Museum in Cambridge at 10 p.m. that evening.
In the fall of 2020, she was also inspired to lead six women on a long-distance walk marking Tubman’s journey from Dorchester County to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. This past October, she again led another group of travelers along the route. The walks have been so well received that, starting in the spring of 2022, monthly three-day events will take place, incorporating boat, horse and carriage, and train transportation, as well as walking, to fully recreate the original experience, Harris announced.
From the D.C. area, Harris recently embarked on a fulfilling second career as a jazz performer, which she has chronicled on a podcast, “My Jazzy New Life.” But after reading a Harriet Tubman biography given to her by her father, Harris felt compelled to visit this area and dig more deeply into her remarkable story.
“I was never very outdoorsy,” Harris admitted. But, becoming intrigued by the idea of retracing Tubman’s actual route along the Underground Railroad, she began a personal training regimen, starting with several miles a day and building up to 20 miles or more daily.
Earlier this month, Harris received a Rise Up Award for Excellence from the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area for Dorchester County.
Johnston’s inaugural Christmas Eve walk in 2019 was a solo event, starting at the Thompson Farm at night, covering 20 miles to Denton. In 2018, he completed a 400-mile solo walking journey across the deep South for the MLK 50 from Selma, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee, visiting the many places Dr. King worked, pastored or led peaceful protests. He’s also traversed Northern Ireland and Puerto Rico.
In May, Johnston was among 20 people receiving a Mural Arts Philadelphia Fellowship for Black Artists, helping him continue to fund his travels to further awareness of ongoing civil rights issues and causes.
Both Harris and Johnston find it compelling to physically follow the paths of figures who somehow found the stamina and courage to complete heroic missions. Helping participants to link arms around and touch the towering Tulip Poplar Witness Tree, present at the time of the Tubman rescue, is just one way the walk helps evoke a powerful spiritual connection with the ancestors, Harris said.
The Poplar Neck site of the Christmas Eve commemorative walk, formerly owned by slaveholders, now encompasses Mt. Pleasant Acres Farm and forest, stewarded over the past few decades by African American owners Paulette Greene and Donna Dear. While developing an organic farming enterprise and hosting workshops helping children and adults learn about living off the land, the two share a steadfast dedication to preserving and promoting their land’s strong connection to Tubman’s roots and Underground Railroad history.
They’ve partnered with Morgan State University to help document the area’s vital importance as part of the Harriet Tubman Byway. Greene and Dear are also working with the Maryland Forests Association to develop environmental education and outreach, and edible agroforestry planting with the Maryland Forest Service. The farm has also collaborated on planting projects with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and ShoreRivers, and worked with Envision the Choptank to help further local watershed health.
As darkness fell, with Johnston’s bells lightly jingling, walkers could start to sense the perilous trek undertaken by Tubman’s group in 1854, with footsteps threatening to falter along the muddy trail to the Choptank River, hearing rustling in the underbrush on either side, many wondering aloud how the original travelers had managed to make it through.
After a school bus returned the group to its starting point at Mt. Pleasant Acres Farm, participants paid a final tribute with a moving launch of individual sky lanterns into the night sky before departing.
For more information on Johnston, visit ourwalktofreedom.com. For updates about Harris and the programs at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, call 410-228-0401. To reach Mt. Pleasant Acres Farms, call 410-673-2787.