They had walked several miles that last Saturday in May when a woman dressed as Harriet Tubman approached.
She wore a long black skirt, a jacket with tattered sleeves, and a large black hat. She held a lantern in her right hand.
“Come on, keep a steady pace going,” Daisy Nelson Century, the Harriet Tubman interpreter, said. “We’re almost to the river. Come on, we’re almost to freedom land.”
It was the final eight miles of a 165-mile journey.
That morning, Ken Johnston, a walking artist from Philadelphia, and Deborah Price, a volunteer at the Underground Railroad Museum in Eastampton were completing the Walk to Freedom that began in Cape May on April 2.
The goal of the walk was to trace the South Jersey routes Underground Railroad conductors used to help Black people fleeing from enslavement
Johnston planned the walk in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of abolitionist and Civil War spy Harriet Tubman in 1822.
For nearly two months of mostly weekend trips, Johnston, Price, and Alvin Corbett, a New Jersey-based public historian, walked on their own.
Occasionally, one or two others joined them.
On May 28, about 50 people gathered at 8 a.m. at Timbuctoo, a village in Westampton, Burlington County, settled in 1826 by free and formerly enslaved Black people.
Among those present were N.J. State Sen. Troy Singleton and Westampton Mayor Sandy Henley. Others joined along the way, bringing the total walkers to about 60, Johnston said.
“The walk has always been about protecting and preserving our civil rights,” Johnston said. “I’ve been trying to get people to recognize that our civil rights are in jeopardy.”
Johnston has made other walks: In 2018, from Selma, Ala., to Memphis, in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From 2019 to 2021, he made a similar walk tracing Tubman’s movements on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, from Maryland to New York.
“This was the most spiritual walk I’ve ever been on,” Johnston said after the South Jersey walk concluded.
It was in Burlington City that people fleeing slavery crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania to journey further north. Some settled in Bristol, others went on to New York and Canada.
After a ceremony at the riverfront, the walkers and guests attended a celebratory program at the nearby Burlington Quaker Center Meeting House and Center for Conference.
A number of the people whom Johnston, Price and Corbett met along the way from Cape May to Burlington City came. Nearly 150 people filled the meeting house.
They came from the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May. They came from Greenwich Township, where the walkers worshiped with an interfaith group on Easter Sunday. Quakers came from New Jersey and beyond. The Lenni Lenape also came, from Cumberland County.
They came from the Peter Mott House in Lawnside, and from Jacob’s Chapel in Mount Laurel, where Dr. James Still, Philadelphia abolitionist William Still’s older brother, is buried in the church cemetery.
They came from Timbuctoo Village.
A white Quaker family, a mother and her two adult children came from Maryland and Virginia to visit the Burlington meeting house the day before the walk to find out more about their family history. The brother and sister learned about the Walk to Freedom and joined it the next day.
The Burlington City gathering took place at a time when the country was still reeling from mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
But here, white people, Black people, and Native American people joined together to celebrate a journey dedicated to freedom seekers in a spirit of hope and peace.
“It was the magic of the souls that came together,” Price said. “It was just so beautiful.”
Louise Davis, 86, of Bristol, is a third cousin of Harriet Tubman.
Davis mesmerized the gathering with a commanding voice to speak of liberation with a poetry reading:
“Many thousands crossed the river … Some go weakly, and some rejoicing, some in silk, some in shackles. No more auction block for me. No more drivers’ lash for me.”
Price, of Willingboro, used her networking skills to bring out a large group for the final walk.
Her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters walked. So did a contingent of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and other Divine Nine sorority and fraternity members. She also invited the North Carolina A&T University New Jersey Alumni Chapter.
At the Quaker Center ceremony, the Essence of Harmony Choral Society sang beautiful old spirituals.
Price said her next mission is to bring together representatives of all of the Underground Railroad sites they visited in South Jersey. She hopes they can collaborate to benefit each other.
C. Joyce Fowler, vice president of the Lawnside Historical Society, which manages the Peter Mott House, said it has been hard to maintain the structure, originally built in 1845.
“It’s a struggle keeping our history together,” Fowler said. “It’s a struggle keeping our house open.”