Few historical figures are deserving of greater public recognition and tribute than Maryland's own Harriet Tubman. Although typically mentioned in history books as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, the many accomplishments over her long life — and her connection to her native state — are not widely known or adequately appreciated.
That's why Congress should move forward with a proposal to create a national park in her name on the Eastern Shore. It is a rare opportunity to right a historical wrong — to set aside the land where Ms. Tubman was born and raised and toiled as a slave so that future generations might walk in her footsteps and develop a deeper understanding of this remarkable woman.
Ms. Tubman's life in Maryland has all the makings of a great spy novel — in fact, she actually served as a spy during the Civil War. Her rise was nothing short of extraordinary. From the most humble of beginnings as an Eastern Shore plantation slave named Araminta Ross (she took the name Harriet later in life), she became such an effective liberator of slaves that the Maryland legislature once offered a $12,000 bounty for her capture.
The proposed national park would include 5,700 noncontiguous acres in Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties on the Eastern Shore and would include the site of her birth, the fields where she worked and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The plan also calls for a smaller park to be established in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman spent the later years of her life.
Maryland Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have endorsed the measure, as have their counterparts from New York. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, whose district includes the Eastern Shore sites, has not.
That's likely because Republicans have historically perceived any expansion of the country's national park system as an extravagance, and the current debt crisis has only reinforced that view. Never mind that the National Park Service budget is so small as to be barely noticeable compared to spending on Medicare, Social Security and defense. At a hearing of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee, ranking Republican Sen. Richard Burr advised park supporters not to get their "hopes up" for any expansion of the park system.
Yet, the U.S. has relatively few parks honoring either woman or African-Americans, and refusing to honor someone as deserving as Harriet Tubman suggests tea partiers like Mr. Harris are content with that inequity. Even in the worst of times, this nation has set aside land for national parks. Dozens of monuments and parks, from the Appomattox Courthouse to the Grand Canyon, were established in the midst of the Great Depression, when U.S. finances were far worse.
The Tubman Park plan is particularly crucial for economic development in Dorchester County, where she was born. With the planned opening of a tourism center and modest 17-acre state park in her name in early 2013, the county hopes to attract tourists and help bring jobs to an area with some of the highest unemployment rates in Maryland.
Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly declined to endorse a plan to have Tubman's statue installed in the U.S. Capitol in the place of John Hanson, the first president of the Continental Congress. The decision was a snub that ought to be rectified.
When the richest and most powerful nation on Earth chooses to slight someone of Harriet Tubman's accomplishments, it suggests that we have neither an appreciation of history nor of social justice. Even in hard times, we cannot turn our backs on our past.
Whether a Tubman Park is created or not will make no real difference in the national debt. But failing to preserve the legacy of this remarkable American would be a loss felt by all and for generations to come.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun