Harriet Tubman Conference welcomes researchers to Cambridge

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper “It’d make yo flesh creep, to know whut dey do to a slave!” Millicent Sparks portrays Harriet Tubman in her performance Friday at the annual Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference.

CAMBRIDGE– “Ah wuz boan a slave, in dis country! It’d make yo flesh creep, to know whut dey do to a slave!”

With those words, Harriet Tubman reenactor Millicent Sparks opened her performance at the annual Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference. Ms. Sparks entered the packed room 101 of Chesapeake College as Harriet Tubman, singing a song of freedom, and then riveted the audience in their seats for 45 minutes with tales from her life in Dorchester County and beyond. With a strong and defiant voice, and a delivery as bold as the most powerful preacher, she tore at the heartstrings of everyone in the room, re-telling in dialect the stories of a life of incredible hardship.

Ms. Sparks performance at 4:00 p.m. on Friday was arguably the highlight of an event that filled two days—Friday and Saturday—with workshops, speakers and a celebration dinner Saturday night.

The workshops covered a wide variety of topics, all related to the life of Harriet Ross Tubman and other Underground Railroad workers who risked their lives to support freedom. There were almost two dozen workshops to choose from in a packed schedule both days.

Ellen Mousin, Conference Director for the event, opened the conference at 12:30 on Friday. She pointed out that the conference is part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom, and welcomed the attendees to Cambridge.  Friday’s master of ceremonies was William A. Jarmon, of the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge.

Saturday’s keynote speaker was Carole Boston Weatherford, a prize-winning poet and bestselling author of a long list of books written for young people, all focused on civil rights and heroes of the movement. A few of her books mentioned were Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, Becoming Billie Holiday, The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights, and Birmingham, 1963.

Saturday night’s dinner at Waugh Chapel United Methodist Church featured another performance by Ms. Sparks. The master of ceremonies for the evening was Royce Sampson of the conference planning committee, and a welcome and opening remarks were heard from conference director Ellen Mousin.

The Conference credits its beginnings to the late John Creighton, a local researcher and expert on Harriet Tubman, who started a discussion group in 2001 concentrating on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad through genealogical and primary document research. These discussion groups focused on Tubman’s life experiences, where she lived, who she led north, and other Underground Railroad and local stories.

While these discussions were going on in Cambridge, nationally recognized historians around the country and throughout the Eastern Shore had been undertaking their own research – sometimes confirming, sometimes challenging the local research. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference is a natural extension of this quest for knowledge. 2015 is the sixth year of the Conference.

Harriet Ross Tubman was a woman who was born into slavery in approximately 1822, who became a national icon by leading many members of her family to freedom in the north. Harriet, named Araminta Ross at her birth near Cambridge, changed her name to honor her mother, as was the custom of the time. She married a free black named John Tubman and soon after made freedom her own by escaping to the northern states. This decision was made because she feared that she would be sold south, when she wasn’t freed at her master’s death.

Harriet Tubman worked at many tasks throughout her life including house and field laborer, woodcutter, nurse, baker, and Union spy. She spent her later years in Auburn, NY where she maintained a home for displaced free individuals after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States.

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