“Trying and laborious” perhaps best describes the months-long research and digging conducted in search of the home of a young Harriett Tubman by the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
[Above photo by the Maryland DOT]
In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) purchased the 2,600-acre Peter’s Neck site within that refuge for $6 million – an area where historians thought Tubman’s childhood home might be located. That is why a year later, Marcia Pradines – the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge complex project leader for the USFWS – asked the Maryland DOT for archeological help in potentially uncovering the young Tubman’s home.
“I asked the state for assistance when I learned they had the interest and capacity to do so,” Pradines said. “It’s been a wonderful partnership.”
Tubman – born in 1822 and originally named Araminta Ross – was an escaped slaved who became one of the most famous American abolitionists and political activists. She used a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to transport freed slaves to Northern states and served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army during the American Civil War.
While Tubman’s years as an abolitionist, spy, and later as a women’s suffrage activist are well known, relatively little is about her childhood.
That all changed in November 2020 due to the persistent efforts of a Maryland DOT SHA research team.
The extensive digging in the muck by the Maryland DOT SHA crew at the Peter’s Neck site turned up a coin from 1808; specifically a 50-cent “Liberty” coin. Then the archelogy crew discovered a chip from a broken ceramic piece, soon followed by other small artifacts.
After a lull in the project, Maryland DOT SHA researchers returned to the site – a one-time timber farm that had now become marshlands – in March 2021 to continue digging, finally striking pay dirt: the remains of the Ben Ross home, so named for Tubman’s father, still relatively intact. Tubman lived on the site with her family; a place where she began learning how to navigate what became known as the Underground Railroad.
Julie Schablitsky, chief of the Cultural Resources Division for Maryland DOT, explained during a recent press event that she and her crew heard about the potential location of the Ross cabin at the Peter Neck’s site just before COVID-19 hit. After the USFWS asked for their assistance, her team got busy: donning mosquito netting and rubber boots to dig away in the swampland to see if remains of Tubman’s home could be found.
“It was very wet, very foggy and very muddy” digging the five-foot-by-five-foot holes, Schablitsky explained – all in an effort to find what turned out to be archeological gold.
This chapter of Tubman’s story began with plantation owner Anthony Thompson leaving the enslaved Ross 10 acres (known as “Ben’s 10”) in his will. That act gave the Maryland DOT SHA team some idea where the house was.
The team dug “hole and hole after hole,” said Schablitsky, and eventually found that coin from 1808 – the approximate year “when Tubman’s parents were married,” she noted. “Then we found the bits of ceramics.”
When the Maryland DOT SHA crew returned in early spring this year, they resumed digging and found more artifacts, including furniture and other housewares. While small, those bits and pieces equate to the bigger story, Schablitsky pointed out that the real question is, “How do we learn more? Sometimes the answer is archaeology.”
Her team continues learning more of the cabin site, which “about 20 to 25 percent” excavated, she said. It lies in a scenic area near Harrisville Road, an area today surrounded by woods and extensive waterfalls. Historically, it would have been in a wooded area not accessible by water.
With the refocus on Tubman heightening the public’s interest, the current state of the site makes for what Schablitsky termed “a treacherous journey,” including about a one-mile walk through knee-deep water to reach the site. However, there are “creative ways” to make it accessible for pedestrians. “We have a trail laid out and are looking for funding,” she said.
The descendants of the Tubman family are equally excited about the findings and what the future may hold for them.
Tina Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece and Ross’ great-great-great-great-granddaughter, spoke for the family at the press event.
“[The news] brings enlightenment, revealing how [Ross] lived his daily life, making it a real-life connection to and for me,” Wyatt said. “The world benefits also from the study of these artifacts concerning objects used by the enslaved; are they common to this plantation, to his position or to this region? It gives us so much more to explore, explain and exhibit.”
As for the site and the artifacts, she added that what has been found looks “Pretty much untouched from when the family was there,” Wyatt noted, emphasizing that Tubman “embraced not the circumstances, but the environment.
“For something so horrific [as slavery to happen] to her people,” Wyatt said. “It’s great to be there now.”
Plans for tourists and historians who want to visit the site are being discussed, said USFWS’s Pradines, as Maryland DOT archeologists plan to return to the dig for further excavation in late fall or spring 2022.
Establishing a timeline for the preservation of the property is critical as well, for the Ross cabin resides in an area predicted to naturally convert to marsh with parts remaining forested into the year 2100.
With the cost to open the approach and the site to the public hovering around an estimated at $200,000 – getting tour buses in could make it a multi-million dollar job – Pradines spoke of establishing a trail system with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service.
“We want to honor those stories and create new ones for birders, hunters and tourists,” she noted.
“This land has rich stories to tell,” Pradines pointed out, from the days of the Native Americans to the Ross family to the first state forester. “We want people to visit [and] we also want to preserve to the integrity of the site,” she said.
Toks Omishakin, director of the California Department of Transportation, and William Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, highlighted the ways state departments of transportation are incorporating equity into their infrastructure programs during a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 11.
Both virtually joined the hearing – held by the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works – to share their perspectives on how to improve transportation equity for disadvantaged communities, “no matter their race, socioeconomic status, identity, where they live, or how they travel,” noted Omishakin.
“Overall, minority and under-served communities experience fewer benefits and take on a greater share of negative impacts associated with our transportation systems,” he explained in his written testimony. “Because of this, transportation equity is not just a transportation issue. To improve equity across the board, we must address transportation equity. To do that, we need to listen to communities affected by inequity and implement change accordingly by altering the ways we evaluate and make investments in transportation.”
As a result, Omishakin said Caltrans is taking several strategic steps to improve equity, including:
Expanding public transportation to meet the needs of a diverse and aging population, including quality transit service in rural communities.
Developing and investing in passenger rail and transit projects that support inclusive job development opportunities in the trades.
Growing the “clean transportation sector” to address the disproportionate effects of pollution on minority and under-served communities.
Investing in safer multimodal and active transportation facilities on community highways, trails, and streets.
Enhancing maintenance and operational investments on all highways and prioritize under-served and rural communities, including tribal governments.
“We will achieve equity when everyone has access to what they need to thrive,” he stressed.
North Dakota DOT’s Panos added rural communities to that “underserved” list in his written testimony – and stressed that traditional formula funding would provide the means to address their needs.
“In rural America, usually the interest of a disadvantaged community, sometimes a community that has been under stress for a long time, is to be better connected beyond the community,” he said. “Strong formula funding will enhance the ability of states to address these connectivity needs. Regional issues should also be considered in order to optimize investment. Certain investments relative to reconnecting a community should be preceded by giving consideration to the potential impact on other communities or on the transportation system as a whole.”
More generally, Panos noted, federal highway formula dollars are “critical” to the success of state transportation programs serving the public, which includes disadvantaged communities.
“They [formula funds] are deployed widely in all of the states. They are used to improve roads, bridges, bike paths, and sidewalks. They pay for vital safety investments, including guardrails and rumble strips. They can also be transferred to transit projects,” he explained. “Strong formula funding and flexible program eligibilities enable a state to address those circumstances and help people.”
The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials Center for Environmental Excellence is hosting a webinar on May 26 to illustrate the current sustainability practices state departments of transportation are deploying across the country.
[Photo by Minnesota DOT]
That one-hour webinar – held from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm ET – highlights how state DOTs can benefit from prioritizing sustainability across a wide variety of practices and activities. Yet a new national survey by AASHTO’s Sustainability Working Group found that only 16 states have directives from their governors, state legislatures, or other bodies to address sustainability issues.
To kick off the webinar, Madeline Schmitt – program planner at Iowa DOT – will provide a brief overview of the sustainability working group’s activities to date, while Phillip Burgoyne-Allen – AASHTO’s associate program manager for environment and active transportation – offers a brief overview of the survey results.
Several state DOT managers from Arizona, Minnesota, and Washington will then share additional insights and lessons learned from their sustainability experiences to date:
Arizona DOT: Steve Olmsted, NEPA Assignment Manager
Minnesota DOT: Jeff Meek, Sustainability Coordinator
Washington State Ferries: Kevin Bartoy, environmental stewardship & sustainability program manager
The New Mexico Department of Transportation is re-launching its “Toss NO Mas” anti-litter campaign; a public outreach effort originally created in the 1990s by Cooney-Watson Productions.
[Above graphic via the New Mexico DOT]
Jim Terr, a Santa Fe songwriter, originally wrote the song “Toss No Mas” – with singer/guitarist Michael Hearne of Taos brought on to sing a “soulful version” of it, which the new Mexico DOT said eventually became “a well-known anthem” statewide.
However, as littering is a “recurrent” issue, the agency decided to bring back this successful anti-littering Spanish slogan and give it a “modern facelift.”
For example, the New Mexico DOT found the largest litter accumulations come from people not tying up their garbage bags, covering loads with tarps, or picking up dropped debris or litter. As a result, the agency constructed two new logos and slogans: “Can the Trash,” created by RK Venture, along with a broader message called “Tie it. Tarp it. Pick it up,” suggested by a state resident.
“Roadside litter has become a persistent issue for the department and New Mexico,” explained Mike Sandoval, New Mexico DOT’s secretary, in a statement.
“We have 886 boots on the ground picking up litter and roadside debris throughout the year, but the problem is ongoing,” he said. “The day after a stretch of road is cleaned, new trash starts to accumulate. During the [COVID-19] pandemic, the problem seemed to get worse as PPE [personal protective equipment] was found everywhere.” Other state departments of transportation encountered similar issues with PPE litter. For example, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, and Keep Tennessee Beautiful joined forces in August 2020 to focus specifically on reducing PPE litter along state roadways.