Eastern Shore African American History
Harriet Tubman & the Eastern Shore African American Experience
People of African descent have lived in Dorchester County for almost as long as those of European descent. Slavery was brought to this area on the earliest ships during the 17th century, and enslaved African-Americans labored in the County’s burgeoning agricultural, timbering and shipbuilding industries. In the struggle for freedom, County native Harriet Tubman, born a slave, became a famous conductor for the Underground Railroad, and then later a scout, spy, nurse, humanitarian, and American hero. Today you can visit a Heart of Chesapeake landscape much like it was in the mid-1800s when Harriet Tubman lived here and learn more about her and the secret network of courageous individuals who faced extreme challenges in helping others escape the bonds of slavery.
African-Americans through the generations have contributed to the development of the area, serving as civic leaders, teachers, preachers, doctors, skilled craftspeople, watermen, and workers in the seafood processing, canning and manufacturing industries. Today’s Stanley Institute, the County’s last remaining community-owned one-room schoolhouse, bears testimony to a time when African-Americans had to create their own educational opportunities. The school opened in 1867 and operated until the 1960s when segregation ended in Dorchester County. The Stanley Institute was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Now almost completely restored, the Institute is located on the outskirts of Cambridge on Route 16.
First settled by free blacks in the early 1800s, the Pine Street area of Cambridge was a thriving commercial and arts/entertainment district. Such notables as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb and Ray Charles frequented its opera house and music halls. However, Cambridge was not immune to the tumultuous upheavals of the 1960s civil rights movement, and in 1967 following a speech by H. Rap Brown, much of the Pine Street business district was destroyed by a disastrous fire.
Enjoy these Heritage Adventures:
Adventure 1Stop in Cambridge at the Dorchester County Visitor Center to pick up your copy of the self-guided driving tour called “Finding A Way to Freedom.” This route takes you back in time to key sites associated with Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, a Dorchester County native, including the Dorchester County Courthouse and Bucktown Village Store.
Adventure 2Visit the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, a stop on the “Finding a Way to Freedom” tour, to learn more about this legendary woman. Ask for a personally guided tour of local sites related to the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman. The Museum is located at 424 Race Street in downtown Cambridge.
Adventure 3Kayak the scenic waterways of South Dorchester. Paddle through some of the extensive network of waterways, marshes and woodlands that both helped and hindered freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Recreation outfitters offer guided kayak and bike tours through “Harriet Tubman Country.” Contact the Dorchester County Visitor Center for more information.
Adventure 4Make an appointment to see the Stanley Institute, one of Maryland’s oldest African-American community schools. The one-room schoolhouse was built in Church Creek in 1865 and was moved to its present location on the outskirts of Cambridge in 1867. Used as both church and schoolhouse in its early years, the building was in continuous operation from 1867 until the mid-1960s when segregation ended in Dorchester County. The Stanley Institute was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places on February 25, 1975. Plans are to open the building to the public once renovations are complete. Across from the schoolhouse is the Christ Rock United Methodist Church, first built in 1875 and rebuilt in 1889 and 1911.