During September, Gov. Larry Hogan wants Marylanders to remember the Underground Railroad, which from the early to mid-19th century helped slaves escape to freedom.
Cumberland was a significant stop on their journey.
Estimates are that between 1800 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, about 100,000 fugitive slaves came north along the Underground Railroad. No one is sure how many passed through Cumberland, because no records were kept for what should be obvious reasons.
Helping slaves to escape was a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and civil damages of up to $1,000, plus six months in jail for each slave assisted. A $1,000 fine in 1850 would be equivalent to almost $32,000 today. Similar penalties were exacted upon anyone who interfered with those who were authorized to return escaped slaves to their masters in the South.
Escaped slaves were subject to whatever penalty their masters chose to impose upon them, even death. They were considered property, not people.
The Underground Railroad took a variety of routes, and one involved the tunnels under what once was Fort Cumberland and now is Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
The tunnels still exist and are often open to tours. They were used to store food and ammunition beneath the fort, which was built by the British in 1754, and to provide access to Wills Creek and the Potomac River and an escape route.
It was made of wood, so nothing is left of it but the tunnels. A description and photos of the church, a tunnel and a model of the fort can be seen at http://www.fortedwards.org/braddock/sites/cbe.htm.
Emmanuel Parish has compiled a history of the church’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. It can be viewed on the Western Maryland’s Historical Library at http://whilbr.org/itemdetail.aspx?idEntry=3058.
It describes how Samuel Denson, an escaped slave from Mississippi, came to Cumberland in the 1850s. Rather than continue heading farther north to a place where he would be safe and free, he decided to stay here and help other fugitive slaves find their freedom.
The Rev. David Hillhouse Buel was rector of the church and had been active in the Underground Railroad farther east in Maryland, which at the time was a slave state. He gave Benson the job of janitor and worked with him to help escaped slaves.
Escapees first came to the Shanty Town part of Cumberland near the C&O Canal Towpath, which was a part of the Underground Railroad that branched off from its main route at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and went west along the Potomac River.
When Benson rang the incorrect time on the church bell, that told escapees it was time to move. He then led them to the church, where they were hidden in the tunnels and given food and whatever other help they needed.
After a day of rest, they were taken across the nearby Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, where slavery had been abolished.
Although many people — both white and black — were associated with the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, a Marylander, has come to be considered the primary “conductor.”
Was Tubman herself ever in Cumberland? We don’t know. A biography of her on the Maryland Office of Tourism doesn’t mention Cumberland.
Tubman lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay, and maps show that her part of the Underground Railroad went north from Bucktown in Dorchester County to Wilmington, Delaware (another slave state), and on to Philadelphia.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park is a 480-acre site that includes locations in Talbot, Caroline and Dorchester counties that were significant to Tubman.
You can learn more about it by visiting https://www.nps.gov/hatu/index.htm.
While we’re at it, it’s high time for Tubman’s picture to go on the $20 bill. It was decided in 2015 that a woman’s face would replace President Andrew Jackson, whose image would be moved to the back of the bill.
Jacob Lew, who then was secretary of the treasury, selected Tubman, but current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the change must wait until at least 2028 because it first will be necessary to redesign the $10 and $50 bills to deter counterfeiting.
That’s nonsense. It could be done, if the will was there to do it, but there doesn’t seem to be.
Speculation is that President Donald Trump has more to do with the foot-dragging than Mnuchin does. He has described the decision to put Tubman on the $20 as an act of “pure political correctness.”
We rarely agree with “pure political correctness,” but if that’s what Lew’s decision to put Tubman on the $20 bill involved, we would make an exception and agree with it.