He called it his Walk to Freedom!
A West Philadelphia man trekked a 400-mile Underground Railroad route in honor of Harriet Tubman, NBC News reports.
Kenneth Johnston is a self-proclaimed walking artist, a title held by a growing network of people who view walking as a form of art praxis. The West Philadelphia native said he’s always had a sincere admiration for the work of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the sacrifice she made working to free enslaved Black people. Johnston eventually decided he wanted to learn more about Tubman’s work, and while some may have picked up a book or watched a documentary about her life, Johnston decided he would take a walk in her footsteps.
In December 2019, Johnston retraced Tubman’s step, walking the path she took in 1854 to rescue her brothers. He walked 140 miles along the Choptank River in Maryland all the way to Philadelphia. While Johnston’s walk took him roughly six weeks, historical reports show that Tubman completed the trek in just four days, a fact that Johnston says, “still blows [his] mind.”
The 61-year-old West Philadelphia native decided this year that he would do it again, this time calling it his Walk to Freedom. Taking a path this time across New York state, Johnston took the time to stop and engage with Black sites and communities along his journey. Starting this past July, his first stop led him to the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem. From there, he traveled through the Hudson River valley across central New York, ending his trek at the church Tubman attended — the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario, Canada.
While in Canada, Johnston visited historical markers that would help him gain more information on Tubman’s own journey; sites like the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center gave him insight into the role of the free Black community who helped those traveling to Canada find shelter. Similarly, the Cataract House was another historical gem, serving as a hotel back then that employed enslaved people as waiters, with hotel staff working in service of the Underground Railroad.
“I was amazed. It was an incredible journey walking across New York state, particularly from Albany to Buffalo…visiting many of the known Underground Railroad communities,” said Johnston.
While the journey was arduous, Johnston often waking up before dawn to begin his walk, and traveling in 90+ degree weather some days, when he got weary, he would take the time to imagine how those running from the bonds of slavery must’ve felt, finding strength and renewed energy in their sacrifices.
“They didn’t have the special Italian hiking shoes that I have. They didn’t have the backpack and all those things that I have. Their journey was more rugged,” he explained.
For Johnston, the journey was particularly spiritual, especially when he stopped in places like the African burial ground in Kinderhook, a burial site for more than 500 Black bodies. There was also his encounter with Judith Bryant, the great-great grandniece of Tubman, who Johnston visited in Auburn, New York. Before leaving, he stopped at Tubman’s gravesite.
“It helped me connect to Harriet Tubman even more in her life by meeting her descendants,” Johnston shared.
Along the way, Johnston received a lot of support, Black and Quaker communities aiding him along the way, one family even housing him for the night. He found a true-blue friend in Geneva, New York, Drink Like a Girl! founder, Kelly Guilfoyle. She was so inspired by Johnston’s mission of honoring Tubman’s legacy and all those who walked to freedom that she helped search for hotels that would sponsor his stay for free along the way. Johnston had previously received more than $3000 in donations via GoFundMe.
All in all, Johnston said the journey was beautiful and he plans to rest before starting another walk, this time a slave trail that stretches more than 1,000 miles from Alexandria, Virginia to New Orleans. Next, he’ll return to Puerto Rico, a place he first visited in 2019 after Hurricane Maria, making his imprint there as well with a walk across the island to connect with families impacted by the storm. For Johnston, the walk is not only liberating but is a full embodiment of the spirit of those who came before him. The walking artist says it is his hope to see more freedom trail markers highlighted across New York to educate people about the interdependency of communities active in aiding freedom seekers.
“I would love to see more signage in the promotion of a freedom trail across central and western New York because our story is an American story. It was Black and white communities that helped freedom seekers get to Niagara Falls and Buffalo to be able to make that crossing into Canada. It was really an integrated movement within the racial movement,” he explained.
Johnston is not the first to walk in homage to Tubman’s life and legacy. GirlTrek, “the largest public health movement for Black women and girls,” was thrust into notoriety in 2018 after 10 of its founding members retraced Tubman’s escape route from slavery to freedom. The group walked a 100-mile Underground Railroad route from eastern Maryland to Delaware in 5 days to honor Tubman.
Thank you Ken! Keep on pushing!
West Philly man treks 400-mile Underground Railroad route to honor Harriet Tubman. Photo Courtesy of Ed Vivenzio, Finger Lakes News Radio