The Underground Railroad matriarch earns recognition

Published 2:15 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

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Milt and I along with his cousins Emma and Sarah attended the unveiling of the Harriet Tubman Statue Exhibit Friday in Halifax, sponsored by the Halifax Underground Railroad Organization.

It was the first time the statue was presented in North Carolina during a nation-wide tour.

The event was truly beautiful and powerful. The award-winning sculptor, Wesley Wofford of Asheville NC, created a stunning tribute to Tubman. He explained how the statue became a symbol to him, not only of the underground railroad, which is often called the nation’s first Civil Rights Movement, but also one of healing after the deaths of George Floyd and many other people of color last year.  Wofford hopes the statue will continue to inspire unity and working towards a common good for all people.

It was significant that the unveiling to honor this courageous woman was held at an underground railroad site, as Tubman embodied the belief, mission and strength of the underground railroad. It was a network of people helping people, Black, White, Native American, immigrants, anyone who understood that no one should be enslaved.  The underground railroad was humanity at its best at a time when humanity was not always at its best.

The museum’s mission is to showcase the genius enslaved people used to reach their freedom, and to include all people whose compassion, grace and dignity exemplifies mankind’s best.

One historian talked about the 20 National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites that North Carolina has. Washington has two.

In 2014, working with the Phoenix Historical Society in Tarboro, I was able to get the Pamlico-Tar River designated as one of those sites.  It was also named as a Freedom Road Site, which are rivers, creeks, streams or any water route that Freedom Seekers used to escape via canoe, boat or ship.

At the event I overheard someone say, “You know, Little Washington got it right. They have an underground railroad museum there. It’s the only one in North Carolina.  The people there tell how that town got together and helped enslaved people.  And how smart enslaved people were able to orchestrate their own freedom seeking attempts. I read about it in Our State Magazine but I’m going when it gets warmer.”

That really blessed me to hear someone I’ve never met or who hasn’t visited the museum talk about our mission. And yes, we are the only Underground Railroad Museum in North Carolina.

The museum does indeed highlight and celebrate the achievements made by all kinds of people living here to make life better for everybody. It’s a testimony to what people can do during the most adverse times.

We’ve had visitors from all 50 states and 23 countries.  We love sharing how this is just another way Washington has earned her place in history.

I hope you will come visit the museum.  Slavery is a difficult story to tell but there is another side some aren’t aware of.  It’s the celebration of the human spirit to overcome. Even a pancake has two sides.  We want to show you some of the ways people in this town offered hope and help. This is us and this is what we do here today.


Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.