The temperature had started to plunge by 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2019 when Ken Johnston set off from the banks of the Choptank River near Poplar Neck, Maryland—his first steps in a 142-mile journey to Philadelphia in commemoration of Harriet Tubman’s daring rescue of her three brothers and six other enslaved persons 165 years earlier. Their flight to freedom crossed through Maryland and Delaware in winter during the longest nights of the year, when it was safest for freedom seekers to travel.
For Johnston, it was a moonless night. Near the site of the old plantation where Tubman and her family were once enslaved, Johnston crossed through a marsh, following a pathway that was normally dry this time of year. He was thinking about Tubman, trying to imagine what might have been going through her mind as she escaped across this same marsh.
“That was probably the scariest part of the evening for me,” Johnston says, adding that his headlamp didn’t help much, so he walked through the darkness, allowing his eyes to adjust so he could better see the path before him. “I didn’t know how wet it was going to be, and as I’m walking through it, I’m hearing the flutter of birds and ducks in the air. There were a lot of emotions going through me.”
Through the night and into the early morning, Johnston traveled 20 miles, mostly along the side of the road, through freezing temperatures, past farms and homes, until he arrived in Denton, Maryland, around 9 a.m., ending his journey in the same hotel parking lot where he had left his car the night before.
“I imagine Tubman came this way because of its isolation,” Johnston wrote on his blog, Our Walk to Freedom, which documents his civil rights activism. “There’s little here but vast tracts of farmlands and former plantations. It’s the perfect place to hide.”
Every weekend for the next two months, Johnston walked a few more miles of the journey along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, bringing only what could fit in his backpack—traveling through Camden, Dover, Smyrna, Middletown, New Castle, Wilmington and Kennett Square—until he arrived at the Philadelphia Underground Railroad Museum on Saturday, February 23, 2020.
“Poplar Neck is 140 miles from Philadelphia, which seems like an easy drive today, but it was a world away,” Johnston says, “and you can feel that when you walk, and how monumental that journey was for them.”
Johnston’s journey across the Delmarva Peninsula is one of many walks he has organized in recent years exploring historic places in the civil rights movement. He’s walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and visited civil rights monuments and museums far and wide.
Johnston is also one of many travelers who have lately started exploring the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a self-guided tour of 45 designated sites that begins on Maryland’s eastern shore near the town of Church Creek, which lies a few miles south of the city of Cambridge, and continues for more than 130 miles through Maryland and Delaware, concluding at the Underground Railroad Museum in Philadelphia, the city where Johnston lives.
Notable stops include the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge; Willow Grove Road near the Delaware state line, a well-known rest stop along the Underground Railroad where conductor Samuel Burris and local Quakers would provide lodging and transportation to free communities in Camden and Wyoming; the Old State House in Dover; and Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington, which includes a monument commemorating Tubman and her collaborator on the Underground Railroad, Thomas Garrett, who helped an estimated 2,700 enslaved people escape to freedom.
Just a few months after Johnston completed his journey along the Underground Railroad Byway, a woman named Linda Harris was inspired to do the same, following a similar path to Johnston’s. She started a Facebook group called We Walk With Harriet, and began recruiting other women to walk from Cambridge to Philadelphia during the summer of 2020.
Having recently retired, Harris had been planning to travel overseas, but then the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
“Between COVID and the social unrest, especially the George Floyd incident, [it] really plunged me into real depression,” Harris says. “I was very sad and just kind of lost my way.”
Then one day, after reading a book about Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Harris visited Cambridge and started planning her trip. She met with the president of Caroline County Historical Society, who discussed the route and encouraged her to contact Johnston, so she did.
“At that point, I thought maybe walking will help me to feel better, to feel free,” Harris says. “But I never walked that distance, so I started training.”
Not wanting to travel alone, Harris connected with seven other women on Facebook who started training with her. Together, they walked a few miles on weekdays, then longer distances on weekends, sometimes as far as 20 miles a day.
“We knew it was not going to be easy,” Harris says. “That’s what kept me going, just knowing that this tiny woman took on this monumental task and never lost anyone along the way.”
After months of training, their journey began on September 5, 2020, in Cambridge and continued for six days along the Underground Railroad Byway, concluding in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on September 10. Johnston walked with them on the initial day.
Harris was so drawn to the city of Cambridge and its surrounding areas that she purchased a home there; she’s hoping to build a camp where travelers along the byway can rest for the night.
“Harriet Tubman’s life is shining on me and motivating me to do things I never would have done,” Harris says. “When you are walking and communing with nature, you have a sense of something that is greater than yourself, and it opens up a whole different way of thinking.”
Both Harris and Johnston admit that even before their first walks were over, they were already thinking about what was next. A month after their initial journey, We Walk With Harriet traveled from Kennett Square to Philadelphia, once again joined by Johnston.
Harris and Johnston both have walked the Civil Rights Trail from Selma to Montgomery, although not at the same time. Johnston continued traveling past Montgomery into rural Alabama and Mississippi, and then southwest Tennessee, following the Underground Railroad through those states until he arrived in Memphis in honor of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Johnston started walking in 2017, when as a resident of Massachusetts he traversed the state from west to east. On that journey, as he passed statues and monuments commemorating union soldiers and abolitionists who fought to end slavery.
The next year, he completed a 75-mile walk across Northern Ireland from Belfast to Derry in commemoration of a march in 1969 organized by that nation’s Catholic minority that was inspired by the march from Selma to Montgomery.
In 2019, Johnston and his brother, Keir, walked 215 miles across Puerto Rico to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria. And in January and February of this year, Johnston and his brother walked from Philadelphia to the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem, New York, in commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.
All walks are memorable, Johnston says, usually because of the people you meet along the way. Johnston would typically park his car at the destination and then either rideshare or hitchhike to the starting point. One day, while hitchhiking from Dover to his starting point in Petersburg, a woman offered him a ride.
“I can’t give you a ride all the way to Petersburg,” Johnston remembers the woman saying. “I’m late for a Quaker meeting.” A surprised Johnston thought to himself, My God, a Quaker is still offering transportation to someone on the Underground Railroad.
One year before writing this story, I met Ken Johnston near the end of his journey in Delaware. He had just crossed the Christina River. After a brief stop in Tubman-Garrett Park, Johnston continued up Market Street. Strapped to his backpack was a sign reading, “Poplar Neck, MD to Philadelphia.” Sleighbells lashed to his belt jingled as he walked. People stopped to ask who he was and what he was doing. A friend of mine offered to buy him a beer, an offer which Johnston kindly obliged.
Afterwards, walking down Market Street, Johnson, in his calm, quiet demeanor, explained why he was traveling on foot along the Underground Railroad Byway, how he was inspired by Tubman’s life and legacy. Tired from his journey, Johnston left our company to rest for the evening. He walked to Kennett Square the following day.
For inspiration during his walks, Johnston quotes the historian-poet Sheree Renée Thomas: “What was once presumed lost, forgotten, soiled, and stripped away can be found, can be reclaimed and resurrected, remixed and revived. In this ever-evolving, ever-changing creative world, old gods live again. New ones are born. They speak, sing, dance new worlds into existence and build in a space where all the artists are border crossers, perpetually dipping in and out of the past while forging new ways to reimagine the present, the future.”