Valery Ross Manokey doesn’t make the trip as often as she used to, but every now and then she’ll head down to her family’s old homestead in the backwoods of Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
She follows the trails that snake through the marshes and pass the former plantations and timber yards. She walks past Bazzel Methodist Episcopal Church, attended by African-Americans in the community since the days of slavery. Manokey crosses the rickety wooden bridge that spans the seven-mile canal that slaves, including her relatives, dug by hand. And in quiet moments there, she says, she can feel the spirit of her ancestors.
"Wonderment is what you feel," Manokey said on a recent afternoon. "Daddy would tell us about those woods. He’d tell us that Harriet [Tubman] had lived down there and how she would travel along roads where there were no roads to rescue her family and our people."
Manokey, 76, is the great-great-grand niece of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave and abolitionist who became known as the "Moses" of her people, ferrying hundreds of slaves to freedom in the North. Manokey’s great-great grandfather was a blood relative of Ben Ross,Tubman’s father.Today Manokey is the oldest living blood relative of Tubman.
To this day much of the Ross clan still live in Dorchester County, in Cambridge, not far from where the famed abolitionist was born and raised.
Tubman was born Araminta Ross but later married John Tubman, a free black man, and following the nuptials she took her mother’s first name, Harriet. The couple never had any children, and after dropping her maiden name, she became more closely linked to the Tubman family.
She escaped slavery in 1849, against her husband’s will, after her master died and his widow hatched a plan to sell her and her siblings further down South.Tubman returned to Maryland 18 or so times, helping hundreds of slaves, including her mother and siblings, to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and anti-slavery activists.
Tubman eventually settled in upstate New York. But her relatives in Dorchester County continue to pass down stories through the generations.
"I spent all of my life wanting to be strong like she was," Manokey said, adding that her father, Owen, told her and her seven sisters about Tubman’s faith, courage and conviction. The strength she drew from those tales helped her raise her six children and graduate high school and college, even though she, like so many blacks from the rural county, grew up poor and with few resources. "There was no way she could have done all that she did without having that, without having something really strong inside of you, that family attachment that would make her come back and take the risks and do the things that she did."
While the stories of other noteworthy African-Americans might be relegated to a page or two in a textbook or a once-a-year Black History Month program in a church basement, for Manokey and the Ross clan of Dorchester County their connection to Tubman has been a constant drumbeat: No matter how tough times get, we are people of courage and goodwill.
Manokey’s father, Owen, was a machinist at a local can factory. Her mother, Mable, worked in the summer peeling tomatoes for a tomato-canning factory. Together they raised eight children, for a time in a single rented room, using lessons gleaned from Tubman’s faith, determination and love of family to get by, Manokey said.
After the Civil War broke out, Tubman became a Union scout, spy and nurse. When she led the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, which freed some 700 slaves, she became the first woman to direct an armed expedition in the Civil War. She also helped militant abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, planned with the intent of capturing an arsenal to advance the cause of freed slaves. She worked closely with William Still, the free black abolitionist in Philadelphia.
Later, Tubman became an outspoken fighter for women’s rights through the suffragist movement.
In the generations that followed Tubman, the Ross family tree has included teachers, social workers, civil rights activists who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., church deacons and good Samaritans.
When neighbors didn’t have food, they would often stop by the home of Manokey’s parents. If elderly people in the community needed their driveways shoveled, the Rosses would dig them out. Unknown to most of the family until recently, the deed to the family church was placed in name of Owen Ross, a move made long ago when the church was going through some financial difficulty. And each night, Mable Ross would have her husband drive her to the home of a 90-year-old diabetic woman who couldn’t muster the nerve to give herself an insulin shot. With a gentle hand, Mable would give the woman her medicine.
"Growing up, our parents and grandparents used to sing this gospel song," said Charles E.T. Ross, Makoney’s nephew. "It goes, ‘If I have helped somebody along the way, then my living shall not be in vain.' That’s what it’s about, what life is about," he said. "For Harriet it wasn’t just about her freeing people. It was her doing good for other people."
For as long as any of the older Rosses can remember, the Bazzel Methodist Episcopal Church held its annual Harriet Tubman Day during the summer, a time for Tubman’s memory to be raised and for fellowship among relatives and friends.The little church is sacred among the county’s blacks for having been a place, tucked back in the woods, where slaves once worshipped, undoubtedly saying prayers of hope and freedom. In the old days, folks would come from all over to descend upon the church.
"You’d see cars parked everywhere and picnic tables with all kinds of food, and all of the relatives came," Manokey said. "That church is little, held maybe 35 people, but on that day you’d have more than 100 people in there and some all over the churchyard."
The younger folks don’t have much interest in going "down the country" much anymore, Manokey said. And the older generations are slowly fading away.
But more recently, after years of what family and local historians called lukewarm interest in Tubman, there has been a revival of sorts.
Last week a wax likeness of Tubman was unveiled at Madame Tussauds in Washington, D.C. Murals and plaques have sprouted throughout Dorchester County. Tubman is also at the center of almost yearlong debate at the U.S. Capitol over whether a statute of her should replace that of a Maryland revolutionary in the National Statuary Hall Collection. And lawmakers in Maryland and in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman died in 1913, are working through legislation that would create national park space in her honor, 5,700 acres of which would be on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
"As a family we treat her not only as an African-American heroine, but as a matriarch," said Darlene Ross Rogers, Manokey’s niece. "She brought people together during one of the most divisive times in the history of the United States. But she had the ability, the wisdom, faith and courage to know that we can’t make any journey alone. We all need someone’s help."
See a slide show of images showing Harriet Tubman's family through the generations.