Linda Harris is a force to be reckoned with: storyteller, non-profit executive, and shepherd to new and important art exhibits coming to Cambridge, in addition to being an amazing professional jazz singer and concert pianist who performs regularly in Cambridge and elsewhere.
Harris first came to Cambridge looking “for my freedom.”
“I was living in a bubble,” says Harris. In her original spoken word song, “Harriet’s Journey,” found on her album “I Got Shoes,” Harris tells of sitting on her bed watching the TV coverage of the George Floyd killing. She says, “I wept, and I wept like I never wept before…at that moment, I felt like my freedom was gone, and at that moment, the moment George Floyd took his last breath, I decided I needed to find my freedom.”
Remembering a book that her father had given her many years before, “Runaway Slave” about Tubman, Harris read the book. And read it again. Then, she came to Cambridge to find out more about Tubman. “Born into slavery in 1822, in 1849, she decided to walk. My way back to freedom was walking,” and so Harris and companions walked the Underground Railway from Brodess Plantation, where Tubman started, 158 miles to Philadelphia, PA. Harris says, “At the end of the walk, my freedom was restored.” And Harris had also found her new home.
During her research into Tubman’s life, Harris talked to Cambridge historians at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center and found a new life’s passion: helping everyone to “take one aspect of Harriet’s life and embrace it, …it will change you…You will think differently. You will find freedom.”
To that end, Harris has dedicated herself to bringing Tubman’s story alive, and she uses multiple arts to do that. Her album I Got Shoes is a compilation of songs called “signal songs” that were used to share information among slaves. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and to write, and so they used a communication that was common to them – songs. Eventually, these songs turned into coded songs whose language contained messages about the means of escaping to safety in the North. Harris says of the songs, “They came from the belly of the slave ship. Their cadence, sounds, and rhythms encourage perseverance, resilience, love, sharing, caring, strength, and community. We just have to find a way to go inside ourselves and pull it out.”
Historians tell us that “Wade in the Water” was a signal song to tell Underground Railroad passengers to get into the water so that dogs could not track them and as a way to keep them hidden from view. “Steal Away” was a signal that a slave could soon try to escape, and Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Virginia, used that song to call meetings to plot the rebellion. “Sweet Chariot” and “The Gospel Train’s a Comin” also spoke of coming opportunities to escape.
There were also “map songs” or “directional songs,” which aided in identifying meet-up places.
In the words,
“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is a waiting for to carry you to freedom,
Follow the drinking gourd.”
The drinking gourd is said to reference the Big Dipper constellation. Following the constellation line to Polaris, the north star gave travelers a guide to follow in the night sky. The first lines speak to the longer days of springtime as a good time to leave.
Harris brought what she knew best to support the Museum: music. Harris began to create events to bring people in and encourage them to become familiar with the space. A popular yearlong grouping of events is called “Jazz at the [Harriet Tubman] Mural” and is held outdoors next to the Harriet Tubman mural on the side of the Museum. In inclement weather, the concert simply moves inside the Museum building. This coming year, 2024, concerts will include David B. Cole, Paul Carr, Alison Crockett, Sol Roots, Reggie Upshaw, Eric Byrd, Danny Garrett/Same O’Hare, and Jack and Bev Osborne (playing as Hickory Grove).
Harris has also introduced theater to the Museum in the play, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and says she can see more theater coming to the Museum in the future, noting that, like the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., she hopes to use all of the arts to further the Museum’s mission.
Currently, the Museum’s offerings are being expanded in exciting ways, including a ceramic diptych by Michael Pugh of Chestertown and a recreation of the Bucktown store where the event that changed Tubman’s life took place.
Pugh’s first diptych represents James and Rebecca Bower, a Quaker couple from Kent County, and the second is of an itinerant African-American woman, Harriett Tillison (a free African-American). All were tarred and feathered in Kent County On June 22, 1858, by a mob on suspicion of aiding enslaved people to escape. Harris expects the large two large ceramic installations to be completed at the Museum sometime in December this year.
Next, and a source of great excitement for everyone at the Museum, Michael Risotto, painter of the Harriet Tubman mural on the side of the Museum, has completed canvasses that will recreate the interior of the Bucktown Store that started Tubman’s journey to freedom for herself and others. An immersion experience, this recreation will be installed in the back of the Museum. Calling the installation “art of defiance,” Harris completes a tour de force of an assortment of arts being brought to bear to continue the legacy of Harriet Tubman.
The CD “I Got Shoes,” containing 15 songs, including most of the ones named above, is available at the Museum and here.
The Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center is located at 424 Race Street in Cambridge, MD, and is run completely by volunteers. Hours are 12-3 pm Tuesday through Friday and 12-4 pm on Saturdays. For more information, call the Museum at 410-228-0401.
Tammy Vitale has spent many years of her life regularly visiting the Eastern Shore, and moved to Cambridge in 2023. An artist herself, she has fallen in love with all the facets of art available in Cambridge/Dorchester County, and wants the rest of the world to get to know and love the arts and artists of this area as much as she does.