Two hundred years ago, abolitionist Harriet Tubman brought people escaping slavery north through the forests and marshes of the Delmarva peninsula along the Underground Railroad. While cities have grown and development has changed much of the landscape, many natural areas still look like they might have in Tubman’s era.
One such place, Blackbird State Forest, was located along the Underground Railroad in Delaware and today is part of the Harriet Tubman Byway, a self-guided historical driving tour spanning from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Philadelphia.
“We know through her writings that she came through the Blackbird area,” said Kesha Braunskill, Urban and Community Forestry program coordinator for the Delaware Forest Service. “We know that it was here somewhere in Blackbird, that she would have been bringing freedom seekers through.”
Though the area remains largely forested, disturbance had taken its toll over the centuries. Parts of the forest had been overtaken by invasive species, and required intensive management.
“This whole field was full of autumn olive and invasives and stuff like that,” Braunskill said.
A portion of the forest needed to be replanted, and the history of the area presented the opportunity to get area residents engaged.
“I took a tour—a hike at Blackbird State Forest with an interpreter last winter—and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to bring that to our programing here at Blackbird,” Braunskill said.
Born in 1802, Tubman had to escape slavery herself before leading others on a perilous journey through slave-holding areas. Her writings suggest that she may have traveled through one or more free Black communities that existed within what is now the 6,000–acre state forest near Smyrna, Delaware.
The tree planting at Blackbird had been planned for 2020 originally, but the coronavirus pandemic halted the work. Adjacent to the newly planted parcel are trees that did make it into the ground just before the pandemic—today many stand taller than six feet.
The planting was again planned for earlier in 2021, to coincide with Tubman’s 200th birthday in March and a series of free, Tubman-themed hikes. But again, circumstances changed.
“We wanted to have this all happen last spring, which would have been [Tubman’s] birthday month, but we had the avian influenza outbreak hit Delaware and all of our staff got pulled to that,” Braunskill said.
Though the planting was delayed, the hikes continued and proved to be immensely popular.
“We had such an overwhelming response to the hikes, we had to add more hikes,” Braunskill said. Those hikes, also held in September, quickly filled up. Billed as Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Underground Railroad Experience Walking Tours, Braunskill thinks they will return to Blackbird next spring.
Ultimately, in mid-September, Braunskill led the volunteer effort to plant 2,075 trees on almost five acres near Cypress Branch, a tributary that feeds into Maryland’s Chester River.
Over 150 people volunteered for the planting, and the large turnout made short work of the huge number of oaks, sumac serviceberry, witch hazel, hazelnut and other trees.
It was the first time many of the volunteers had ever planted a tree. That was the case for Tatyana Favors, 21, and her mother Gail, from New Castle County, Delaware. Favors, who has been “going through a journey of brain cancer” for the last four years, wanted to host her own tree planting for her foundation. But, having never planted a tree, she and her mother came to Blackbird to learn how it’s done.
“Planting more trees is really helpful because usually people are cutting down more trees, Favors said. “And I also want to volunteer and serve.”
“This reminds us of new life,” her mother added.
Amid long rows of unplanted trees, the Favors received instruction from Caroline Dowd, who returned to Blackbird as a volunteer after leading an even larger planting just across the road at the state forest in 2018. Then a Girl Scout and junior in high school, Dowd rallied 150 volunteers to plant 8,000 trees.
The series of plantings growing along Cypress Branch will add to the area’s natural appeal, helping preserve Harriet Tubman’s story while also protecting the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay downstream.
Braunskill said that the fact that so many newcomers attended the year’s events was “what is really cool about this planting and this programming in general.”
“We really wanted to make sure we pulled in families of color, and just diversity,” Braunskill said.
“The whole point was to get people to come to the forest.”