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Honoring Harriet Tubman

President Barack Obama's designation Monday of a new national monument to Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery on a Dorchester County plantation in 1849, then helped guide scores of other slaves to freedom in the North during the decade before the Civil War, honors a small and unprepossessing African-American woman who played an outsized role in American history.

Mr. Obama's proclamation sets aside the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument near the city of Cambridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore as a historical preservation site to be administered by the National Park Service. It will be the first such monument ever to commemorate an African-American woman, and the fact that it is being welcomed by state and local lawmakers as well as residents shows how much has changed in the county in recent decades.

Once a place where racial strife was rampant — in 1967, rioting sparked by the city's refusal to desegregate public accommodations and schools led then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew to call in the National Guard to restore order — Cambridge elected its first black mayor in 2008 with biracial support. Since then, it has seen a boom in downtown development and an influx of new residents who have helped the town put its troubled past behind it.

Tubman is believed to have been born to enslaved parents sometime around 1820 on a large plantation near present-day Cambridge (as with many slaves, neither the exact year nor place of her birth were recorded). She was the middle child in a family of nine siblings who lived in constant fear of being sold off and separated from each other due to their master's impecunious finances.

Tubman made her first escape attempt with two of her brothers in September 1849 after learning their master was again planning to sell them. "There was one of two things I had a right to," she recalled of that experience, "liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other." But despite her vow to be free or die trying, that attempt failed.

Some weeks later, however, Tubman escaped again, this time successfully reaching Pennsylvania, a free state. "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was same person," she recalled years later. "There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

Tubman ultimately returned to Maryland more than 13 times to rescue relatives and others still held in bondage. Her route up the Choptank River in Delaware and thence into Pennsylvania followed the "Underground Railway" of secret safe houses and hiding places established by free blacks and white opponents of slavery, such as the Quakers, to help runaway slaves reach safety in the North.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Tubman volunteered as a nurse in a Union hospital, then served in the federal army as a spy and scout behind enemy lines, where her detailed knowledge of marshlands and inland waterways contributed to several notable Union victories. After the war, she settled in a house in Auburn, N.Y., where she worked for women's suffrage and established a retirement home for elderly African-Americans.

The Harriet Tubman monument was one of five sites nationally designated for preservation by Mr. Obama, who had been criticized for setting aside only four such sites during his first term. Honoring Tubman's legacy is a good place for him to start picking up the pace. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in her statement of praise for the president's decision, Tubman was "tireless in her commitment to fight for those who could not fight themselves." Today, when Tubman's audacity, tenacity and courage in the struggle for human rights are celebrated worldwide, it's only fitting that she should finally receive the official recognition she so richly deserves in her native state.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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