After Ernestine Martin Wyatt helped stage a walkout decades ago over a lack of African-American history lessons at her high school, a teacher pulled her aside to ask about Wyatt's family ties to Harriet Tubman.
The Maryland-born slave and famed conductor of the Underground Railroad left a personal legacy in her family, Wyatt, a distant niece of the abolitionist, said Saturday: a succession of strong women.
And it's that more personal side of Tubman that Wyatt hopes America comes to know during the forthcoming centennial of her death. Nearly 20 of Tubman's descendants, including Wyatt, gathered at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum to kick off plans to commemorate her on the hundredth anniversary of her death on March 10, 1913.
"She was a humanitarian," said Wyatt, 59, of Washington, who goes by "Tina." "She was concerned with the well-being of people's minds and health. She was a woman of grace, and she knew she was only able to do what she did with God."
Wyatt recalled family tales, such as her grandmother describing riding a wagon on laundry trips with Tubman, who stayed active into her 90s.
Louis C. Fields, president of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council of Maryland, highlighted the sweeping efforts in the past decade to honor Tubman, including the Underground Railroad Byway that bears her name. Plans also call for two national parks in her name, one on the Eastern Shore where Tubman was born into slavery as Araminta Ross and one in Auburn, N.Y., where she spent the later years of her life.
Fields also urged Marylanders to support efforts to place a statue of Tubman in the U.S. Capitol.
"In honoring her, we are remembering all of the enslaved people in Maryland," Fields said.
Fields said Tubman had relatives in Baltimore and came to the city in 1850 to lead members of her family from slavery. Tubman went on to guide and inspire thousands of slaves to freedom, and spied for the Union during the Civil War, he said.
Among the events planned for the centennial are a Tubman statue unveiling in Wilmington, Del., next month; the celebration of Tubman Day at the Maryland State House on March 8 and an Underground Railroad Conference in Cambridge set for June.
A Tubman family reunion is scheduled for August, also in Cambridge.
Patricia Ross Hawkins of Easton, another distant niece, said many of Tubman's descendants have met for the first time through the state's efforts to commemorate her life. Together, their tales illustrated the values that Tubman instilled in her family, handed down from generation to generation.
For instance, Hawkins said, her parents and grandparents raised vegetable gardens to help feed the members of the community, especially the elderly.
"I'm very excited to see this amount of attention given to her; she is finally given her due," Hawkins said.
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