Coming to Terms With the Messy Evolution of American Liberty

I left home for my interview at the ,Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park with plenty of time to make it there early. I’d been working pretty hard at my newfound hobby, a podcast about the Delmarva peninsula. The interview with a guide at the park was my first foray outside my own circle of influence. I wanted to make a good impression.

I was concerned there’d be a traffic incident or something and to avoid the appearance of being unprepared, I’d given myself a time-cushion of one hour. The catch was that I had been told not to arrive too early, because there was a gate at the entrance that wouldn’t open until 10AM.

The park is located in Church Creek, Dorchester County, Maryland, and I would travel through nearby Cambridge along the way. The trip to Cambridge, Maryland was uneventful and the extra hour I’d created for myself presented me with the opportunity to do some additional sight-seeing and research in preparation for the interview.

I pulled over and changed my destination on my phone.

4303 Bucktown Road, Cambridge, MD

That’s the address for the location of a little store where one of the most significant yet somewhat understated moments in the history of the abolitionist movement occurred. It’s where we can find the Bucktown General Store. This is where an irate slave handler accidentally threw a 2 lb weight through the skull of 12-year-old Araminta Ross.

He wasn’t even aiming for her.

But the errant throw forever changed the life of the little girl who would grow to be Harriet Tubman, and perhaps changed the trajectory of American history at the same time.

Travelling east on route 50, as I approached the outer limits of Cambridge, the phone directed me to turn left onto Percy May Road. Then right onto Drawbridge Road. There were a couple more twists and turns before finally turning onto Bucktown Road. As I drove, I engaged in my longtime and sometimes dangerous habit of looking out into the fields and the edge of the forests for wildlife.

I don’t know that I spent any more time than anyone else would staring out the windows of the backseat of the car as I was growing up. On long road trips we’d play a game called shlopsky iron. It was a simply game. If we saw a tractor, we’d shout “shlopsky iron!” for one point. If we saw a horse, it was simply shlopsky, but for two points. First person to a predetermined amount of points wins. When I was 9 we took a trip across the country. We played a lot of shlopski iron. We added “coat rack” for any deer sightings. A deer would get us three points.

I made that rule, ‘cuz I’m creative.

Anyways, I think playing shlopsky iron is where I developed my tendency to peer off into the distance looking for animals in the fields and woods along a drive.

Add to this, I’ve been blessed with strong vision. The eye doctor recently downgraded my vision from 20/10 to 20/15 – still a little bit better than “perfect vision.” So I’m able to spot wildlife pretty well, and at good distances.

Delmarva is perfect for the amature wildlife spotter, particularly in the months after the harvest when the cornfields are barren of their crops.

We couldn’t play shlopsky iron here for long because being farm country, there are tractors and horses everywhere. The game would be over as quick as it began. Adding to the vast numbers of tractors and horses are herds of deer. Delmarva has a tremendous amount of deer. But even after all these years of seeing herds of deer in the fields and often having to hit my brakes to avoid hitting one, I still love seeing them out in the wild. So by habit, my eyes were scanning the fields and edges of the woods for deer or other wildlife.

First, way off in the distance on my right I saw a large group of dark objects I determined to be a flock of about 50 or so wild turkey.

Then off to my left a flock Canada geese. They were about to be joined by a flock of Snow Geese which was gliding in to land, feathers as white as …well, snow.

Aptly named, those Snow Geese.

It was a clear but cold day, and as I drove on I began to focus on the coming experience at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Park. I intentionally began to take note of the landscape and pondered what that part of the world would have looked like back in Harriet Tubman’s day.

It would have been much the same, I suppose, though the roads would have been dirt and the fields smaller, with no shlopsky irons to make easy work of turning the soil.

It was when I was looking at the fields that I saw it. Sitting in a corn field about 75 yards from the road was a lone Bald Eagle. While it still feels special to see Bald Eagles in the wild, spotting them is no longer a rare occurrence.

I often see them perched high in the trees along the Wicomico River. They like to sit in the leafless branches of dead trees most, but sometimes on the large branches of live trees with a good view of the river. They even sit in the large high-tension power line towers where they’ve built a nest several hundred feet above the water’s edge near my in-laws home situated on the river. There’s one sitting in a tree near the Upper Ferry I cross each day. They’re becoming part of the river landscape.

The second place I often see them is in corn fields where they can be seen tearing into carrion. This was the case on this particular drive to Church Creek.

Bald Eagles are fun to watch, and for us Americans can elicit a sense of patriotism. They look strong and authoritative. Nobody messes with the Bald Eagle, right? We certainly don’t want to mess with the patriotic symbolism.

Right? Or do I?

Read on.

A couple of years ago my mother-in-law and I had a discussion…

OK, it was a disagreement…about which bird was stronger, a Bald Eagle or an Osprey. Osprey are all over the place on the river. They’re a bit smaller than the Bald Eagle, and far less cool-looking, so I couldn’t believe there was any way they were superior to the Bald Eagle.

My mother-in-law is a sweet woman. I mean that with every ounce of genuine spirit I can muster. You’d love her.

She’s a hugger, whether you’re comfortable with hugs or not. I’ve witnessed more awkward hugs at her behest than I can count. But by the end of your time with her, she’s a loving friend to you who’s stuffed your face with more food than you wanted.

She’s a creature of habit, with stacks of Southern Living Magazine on the back porch. She has a tendency to cling to clichés and simple ways of understanding the world. One can’t have a conversation with her and not be hit with a “…well you know, they say that…” from time to time, regardless of whether what “they” are saying is true.

“Well you know, they say that watching the pot makes the water take longer to boil.”

We know that’s not true. But if you watch water boil, it’ll feel true. So it works for her.

Knowing this, I’ll often question some of the things she says. Also, I’m her son-in-law, so it’s kind of my job to be hard-headed.

This is the mindset I was in when she told me Osprey – the other bird of prey on the river – were more formidable than the Bald Eagle.

The Osprey are more numerous here. She’s just defending them because she’s more familiar with them. NO WAY the Osprey is stronger than a Bald Eagle.

I did a little google research on the subject to gain hard-fast, internet proof to back up my opinion only to discover my mother-in-law was….(sigh) not wrong. The Osprey is able to hold its own with the Bald Eagle. They’re not intimidated by our national symbol, and they’ll push back if need be. Stronger than an Eagle? Not necessarily, but just as capable of anything an Eagle can do.

I already knew Benjamin Franklin tried to prevent the Bald Eagle from becoming the national symbol of the United States. He understood the behavior of the Bald Eagle included stealing nests from other birds, including Osprey. He said the Bald Eagle was “too lazy” to catch its own fish.

You probably already knew this about the Bald Eagle, didn’t you? It’s ok. I did too. It’s a detail we push back into the recesses of our mind for convenience. We even create false realities to back up our belief system.

Here’s a falsity about the Bald Eagle you might not know: The Bald Eagle has a ferocious sounding screech. The Stephen Colbert Report, had an opening sequence with a Bald Eagle swooping across the screen with a piercing screech. Only, the sound effect was that of a Red Tailed Hawk. The Bald Eagle couldn’t even use its own call.

Had to steal it from a Hawk.

The Bald Eagle’s call sounds more like a whiney seagull.

But we ignore these facts. We like the cool-looking Bald Eagle with an echoing screech. That’s the reality we prefer.

Founding father Ben Franklin didn’t ignore these facts. He thought the Turkey was a more suitable national symbol for the United States.

Can you imagine if the turkey was the national symbol of the United States?

No way!

The turkey is the butt of jokes. If someone calls you a turkey, they’re not throwing a compliment your way.

I don’t think the turkey would be a good symbol of the United States – sorry, Ben.

Even so, as I drove past the Eagle on Bucktown Road that day, it seemed the reality of the Bald Eagle, those less-than-flattering facts of it’s behavior, might be a more appropriate symbol of America than we’d like to admit. We’d engaged in behaviors we’d likely want to forget in order to accentuate the awesome parts. But some of those shadows from our past are abhorrent.

The United States engaged in the behavior of enslaving people.

There I was, on my way to an interview with a guide at a park dedicated to one of America’s most famous abolitionists Abolitionists who, like Tubman, committed their lives to ending the practice of slavery in the United States.

It was as if we were eating fish we didn’t catch, and the people who were catching the fish wanted us to a) catch our own fish, and b) let them catch their own fish.

As I drove by the Bald Eagle I noticed its head, which would normally be white, wasn’t. I couldn’t definitively tell what it was, but the feathers seemed to be streaked with either mud from the ground, or blood from the dead animal in which it was feasting. Either way, the visual image wasn’t lost on me.

There are things about our country’s past that blemish what we might otherwise want people to believe about us.

I’m not here to point fingers. I’m really not. When I use the pronouns “us” and “our,” I recognize the wording is inclusive of me. I mean for it to.

The subject of American slavery makes me uncomfortable. I’ll tell myself it was something that’s over. Or that it was a different group of people. I mean, I grew up in Boston…in the north. The north ended slavery with the Civil War. My people were the good guys, right? I’m all good.

But no. For some time now, I’ve had a lingering question as to what my part in America’s sordid history and relationship with chattel slavery actually was…or is…or whatever. If there are issues there, I’d like to deal with them.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could have an open, honest conversation about our history without having to be defensive? Don’t you agree that some might find healing in a country that acknowledges its wrongs, seeks reconciliation, and moves forward to justice?

I don’t know that I can answer all of those questions for the whole country. In fact, I know that I cannot. But I can answer those questions for myself, and to a certain extent, answer some questions about my family.

That’s where I’m at today. I want to know my own family’s involvement with our country’s history of slavery. I think that’s the ultimate question I had as I drove past that eagle to learn about the history of Harriet Tubman.

My own family has a history, and I think there’s a chance we’ve ignored some of the shadows. I don’t want to do that anymore. I’d like to face what’s there. I’d like to answer some questions. Beginning with this one:

Did my family own enslaved people? I have reason to believe we did.

So I’m going on a journey. All those statements above – about having open, honest conversations about our history, about not being defensive, about acknowledging wrongs, seeking resolution, and moving towards justice…

I’m on a journey to do that for myself.

Ride along with me. I’ll do the hard stuff.

You can find part two of this journey here, in a post called, Two Bricks, Made by Slaves.

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