Photo of women walking into Kennett by Historic Kennett taken from their Facebook page.
Painted on the side of 120 South Willow St. in Kennett Square is a mural of Harriet Tubman. Artists Dave Mass and Joe Gothelf depicted her walking outside, holding up a lit lamp, with three shadow figures running towards the light. Dedicated in 2010, the mural symbolizes the critical role Southern Chester County played in the Underground Railroad.
While the location itself is significant, what the mural depicts is even more so. Born in Maryland in the early 1820s, Tubman managed to escape to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. Free from the chains of slavery, she risked her autonomy countless times, traveling back and forth between the South and North to channel slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Inspired by her fortitude and strength, a group of eight women from various locations on the East Coast walked in Tubman’s footsteps — the entire 116-mile Tubman Byway stretch from Cambridge, Maryland to Kennett Square. Previously strangers, they connected over social media, and organizer Linda Harris put the plan in motion.
Harris has been featured by numerous media outlets with her “We Walk With Harriet” group. In an interview with ABC, Harris said, “Harriet walked to freedom. So I’m feeling like right now I’m not especially free, and I thought to myself the best way to start to feel good again is I must walk in the steps Harriet walked. She’s helping me to heal and helping me to understand what’s really going on here. The only way I can deal with this is to free my mind. Freedom is certainly a word; we know what it means. But it’s also symbolic of releasing the tension, the pain, the fear that I’m feeling because of this political climate and it’s helped me tremendously.”
Less than a 30-minute drive from West Chester, the nearby Kennett Square Historical Society was the end destination for the “We Walk With Harriet” women. Though Tubman traveled through much of Pennsylvania during her work in the Underground Railroad, including stops in Montgomery County, York County and homes in the Germantown area, Kennett Square specifically was a crucial place for abolitionists. The Kennett Underground Railroad Center explained, “the relatively large free black population in Chester County — about 6,000 or 8% of the population — and the largest Quaker population in Pennsylvania made Kennett a desirable and relatively ‘easy’ destination.”
Making incredible time by walking about 20 miles a day, the women finished their trek last Thursday, Sept. 10. Before setting on their journey, they organized a fundraising page to raise money for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Dorchester, Maryland. At the time of writing, they have reached $3,400 in donations, well over their $2,500 goal. The women were met with an outpouring of support on the road, with people cheering them on, high fiving them and dropping off supplies.
Along the way, they passed Confederate flags in some parts of the South, but continued on undeterred. They documented their experience on a Facebook page titled “We Walk With Harriet,” updating followers on their progress with uplifting videos and messages. The “About” page of the profile states their mission: “We are walking because we are the daughters of Harriet Tubman. We are walking because this is our story to tell. We are walking for health, love and for justice. Harriet gained freedom walking. We walk with Harriet.”
Towards the end of their journey, Harris stated what she learned from the experience: “This is the greatest country in the world. Let’s treat it that way, and let’s treat each other that way.”
The mural of Harriet Tubman in Kennett Square offers a constant reminder of the area’s rich and complex history, but how long it will stand is in question. The building holding the mural is set to be demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art $15 million library, breaking ground in 2021. Why that location, specifically? Jeff Yetter, vice president of the Kennett Library’s Board of Trustees, explained in a Daily Local article, ““Libraries are community centers, places for people to meet. If we moved it out of town, people wouldn’t walk to it. We think this will set the tone for Kennett Square.”
Some people of the Kennett community voiced their concerns about the demolition of the mural. These concerns were addressed in a public meeting held in March, where a preservation plan was discussed. No word yet though on specific plans for preserving the mural. The “We Walk With Harriet” women coming to Kennett Square offers a timely reminder that this period of history should not be forgotten.
Maria Marabito is a fourth-year English writings major with a minor in literature and diverse cultures. MM883631@wcupa.edu.