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Chronic Flooding Threatens Sites Along Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway

These now-flooded paths through forests, or “ghost forests,” in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge may have been the road to freedom for Harriet Tubman and the people she rescued. Ten sites along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway are at risk of chronic flooding as the climate warms and sea levels rise. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Renna McKinney is faced with a problem that could put her childhood church under water.

Malone’s Methodist Episcopal Church, a landmark on the historic Harriet Tubman Byway, could be lost unless raised from its foundation by 2050. Photo by Beth Parnicza, National Park Service.

The Dorchester County native fears that frequent flooding could rob the community of Malone’s Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American church established on Maryland’s Eastern Shore after the Civil War.

Free Black people and formerly enslaved families from four rural communities made their way to worship along the intersecting wooded paths leading to the church. This now-historic landmark is among 45 sites on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile scenic route through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Delaware to Philadelphia, associated with Tubman’s early life, escape from slavery and road to liberation.

And, for McKinney her concern for the Malone’s Church grounds is deeply personal. “My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother are buried there,” she said.

By the early 20th century, the gabled roof looks like it does today, with an arched opening into a single room and choir loft. An inventory of the cemetery lists 100 graves, including Moses Tubman (1819-1891) and his wife Emeline Tubman, who are related to Harriet Tubman by marriage. Their headstones are still legible. Other markers are toppled, or eroded with age.

“The waters have been rising,” McKinney said, acknowledging the findings of a report released this spring by Climate Central, an independent scientific group that used proprietary mapping and modeling tools to detail future flooding along the Tubman Byway.

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The historic church is among ten sites that are at risk of chronic flooding as the climate warms and sea levels rise.

“You’re already seeing it at high tides,” said co-author Alison Kopicki, whose organization has observed water under the church even on sunny days. “Our analysis shows that by 2050 the entire footprint of the building will be at chronic flood risk throughout the year, or somewhere from between six to 12 times a year, meaning monthly, especially with the tides or any major storm event,” which, she said, scientists predict will be more frequent and intense.

‘An open lake’

A short drive from the church is Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, a natural jewel in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service with its 30,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, hardwood forests, managed wetlands and farms. The refuge is a major a stop on the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south migration route. Each year Blackwater becomes a resting and feeding area for thousands of waterfowl including wintering Canada geese.    

Huge flocks of snow geese over Blackwater National Refuge in their migration south from the Canadian Arctic. Photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The refuge also has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles anywhere on the Atlantic coast.

Wildlife biologist Matt Whitbeck’s job is to protect those species and keep the refuge open for its 200,000 annual visitors, including some who journey into the backwoods, across agricultural lands and into small communities to follow in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman and other freedom seekers.

“Sea levels have been rising in the Chesapeake Bay since the last ice age. What’s different [from Tubman’s day] is the rate of change.” Whitbeck said.

Since 1933, when Blackwater became part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, sea level rise has turned 5,000 acres of tidal marsh, with its well-defined river channels, creeks and ponds, into open water. Whitbeck said a lake-like expanse along Wildlife Drive near the refuge visitors center is evidence of climate change in real time.

“People can come here to Blackwater, and they can look out and they can see the ghost forests. They can see the open water that was marsh. They can see with their own eyes,” he said.

“Over those same years, 3,000 acres of upland forests have converted to marsh,” said Whitbeck, who must consider how best to manage the at-risk saltmarsh sparrows and black rails that depend on the irregularly flooded marshes, and how to control the phragmites, an aggressive non-native perennial that is restructuring the habitat, crowding out native grasses.

According to the Climate Central report, “Sea level rise can harm even landscapes accustomed to regular floods. Rising seas can outpace the accumulation of sediment and organic materials that elevate marshes. This slowly drowns valuable habitat for local and migrating species and degrades flood protection to neighboring farms and inland communities.”

“This is what keeps me up at night,” Whitbeck said. “I know we’re going to have wetlands, but what is going to be the quality of those wetlands for the wildlife that depend on [them]?”

He summed up his approach as: resist, accept, direct.

“What impacts of climate change can you realistically resist? What do you just have to accept? And, then where can you redirect things?” he asked.

Complications and compromises

In his work with vulnerable Maryland coastal communities facing the social, economic and cultural consequences of sea level rise, Ming Li, University of Maryland professor of environmental science, said survival depends on making some hard choices.

“Are you going to defend the front line or occupy the higher grounds,” he said.

Options to cope with rising waters range from construction projects like sea walls, levees or storm gates, to ecological measures like restoring wetlands and oyster reefs.

“We should try different approaches in different areas depending on the needs of each region,” Li said, adding that any decision involves complications and compromises, often exposing social inequalities in places with lower income and fewer resources. “It’s a shared [rural-urban] waterway and the [communities] really need to think about building resiliency together. If, we do a seawall on the Eastern Shore, it will raise the high tide in Baltimore by 15%,” he said, moving the water elsewhere, not resolving the problem.

And, to those urban neighbors, he advises: “Instead of spending your money on higher and higher sea walls, why don’t you think about working with people on the Eastern Shore to use that money … to [raise] their houses or maybe help them move to higher ground, which to me would be a more cost effective and equitable solution.”

Renna McKinney, right, and others pose in front of the Malone’s Methodist Episcopal Church historic cemetery, where burials continue. Generations of McKinney’s ancestors are buried at the site. Photo courtesy of the Harrisville Malone Cemetery Maintenance Fund.

While McKinney can’t stop sea level rise, she can raise awareness about the threat as president of the Harrisville Malone Cemetery Maintenance Fund, an organization she founded to mobilize support to save the church. “We’ve brought in gravel and dirt to build up the low areas with grants from Preservation Maryland and Choptank Electric Company to repair the steeple,” she said.

But there’s much more work ahead. The non-profit wants to stabilize the structure, and turn the church into an interpretive center.

“So, people can know about the families that lived here, and their love for the church and community,” she said.

Diane Miller stands behind those efforts as manager of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, which includes the church among its 698 sites across 39 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands.

She said the survival of these historic places carries a message of self-liberation and civil rights that resonates today.

“It joined people of different religions, different social classes and different races, working together for a common goal to change society. That’s a powerful example of what could be done, how people can take action to affect change,” Miller said.

McKinney said Malone’s Church is a testament to the faith, strength, and resourcefulness of her ancestors. “We can tell the story of Harriet and her family, and of all the families that showed her how to read the stars,” McKinney said. That skill helped Tubman rescue 70 people and train others to do the same through the dense forest.

“This story cannot be lost,” she said.


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Chronic Flooding Threatens Sites Along Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway