Illustration: VisitNorfolk

Waterways to Freedom Tour Retraces Norfolk’s Role in Underground Railroad

This Black History Month, Norfolk offers a chance to closely trace the role its waterways played in the Underground Railroad Network.

While we hear a lot about the journeys to freedom northward from Dorchester County thanks to Harriet Tubman’s pivotal role, Norfolk and Portsmouth were a key link.

The Waterways to Freedom trail runs along the downtown Norfolk waterfront, where tens of thousands of enslaved escaped north from the southern states. Many were helped by anti-slavery ship’s captains.

Underground Railroad agent William Still published a book in 1871, The Underground Railroad, recording nearly 750 accounts of escape, and a good portion came from Hampton Roads. His book lists vessels including the City of Richmond , the Pennsylvania , and the Augusta steamships, as well as the Kesiah schooner, among those that transported runaways to points north.

Today, visitors can see landmarks around Norfolk with a self-guided tour of the Waterways to Freedom trail. It’s a pandemic- friendly option, says the City of Norfolk’s tourism department.

“Especially during a pandemic, this outdoor, self-guided trail allows visitors to keep adequate social distance in an uncrowded area while they explore at their own pace. Waterways to Freedom is an excellent way to trace the rich Black history in Norfolk,” says Kurt Krause, President & CEO of VisitNorfolk.

Bay Bulletin asked VisitNorfolk to suggest shops and restaurants for those who want to make a day of seeing the Waterways to Freedom trail. Find their list below:

Selden Market – Located within the historic landmark of the Selden Arcade, Selden Market consists of a rotating lineup of up-and-coming small businesses. Currently you’ll find Black-owned businesses, Pure Lagos, an Afropolitan art gallery and health boutique, and Sugar & Grace Co., a DIY candle shop recently featured on Good Morning America.

Brothers – Downtown Norfolk’s newest restaurant, Brothers, was founded and inspired by NBA referee and Norfolk native, Tony Brothers. The location offers an intimate dining room and a sophisticated menu of meats and fresh seafood.

Grain – A rooftop bar with sweeping river views, Grain offers over 100 beer taps with an open-air patio and large fire pit, set against a beautiful water backdrop.

Luce – An Italian trattoria in the heart of Downtown Norfolk, Luce serves up carefully crafted, handmade pasta dishes featuring an incredible variety of Italian ingredients and regions, from Sicily to Sardinia.

Hummingbird Macarons & Desserts – Located just off the trail in Norfolk’s NEON Arts District, Kisha of Hummingbird’s creates delicious sweet treats from scratch that are perfect to enjoy while exploring.

Battleship Wisconsin – One of the largest and last battleships built by the U.S. Navy, the Battleship Wisconsin is moored along the Waterways to Freedom trail and can be toured from the adjoining Nauticus museum.

Trail of Honor – Along the Waterways to Freedom route, visitors will find the Trail of Honor that showcases Sergeant William Harvey Carney, the first Black solider to receive the Medal of Honor.

Click here to find out more about Norfolk’s Waterways to Freedom – A Self-Guided Tour.

-Meg Walburn Viviano