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Park to honor Tubman advances in Congress

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (Handout photo)

A long-standing bipartisan effort to create a national park in Maryland and New York to honor abolitionist Harriet Tubman appears to be on the verge of congressional approval after it was tucked into a must-pass defense bill.

Language to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Parks was included in an $850 billion Pentagon bill approved Thursday by the House of Representatives. The Senate is set to take up the measure next week.

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The legislation was the result of a rare partnership between Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a liberal Democrat, and Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, a conservative Republican — among others. The Maryland portion of the park could include sites in several Eastern Shore counties.

"Harriet Tubman was an iconic figure [in] our nation's history," Cardin said in a statement.

He said Tubman would become the first African-American woman and the first individual woman to have a national historical park named in her honor.

President Barack Obama set aside 480 acres on the Eastern Shore last year for a national monument to honor the best-remembered conductor of the Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped deliver fugitive slaves to freedom in the years before the Civil War.

The new park designation, if approved by the Senate, would permit the National Park Service to acquire an additional 775 acres in Talbot County, 2,200 in Caroline County, and 2,295 in Dorchester County, the lawmakers said.

The land includes sites that are significant to Tubman's life, including her likely birthplace, the Brodess Plantation, where she worked as a young girl, and the Poplar Neck plantation, where she escaped slavery in 1849, they said.

The measure also establishes a park in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman later moved.

Supporters said the measure requires the government to acquire land only from willing sellers and protects land use rights in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge for hunting, fishing and farming.

"When the local community raised concerns about property rights, our offices worked together to find ways to protect the citizens while ensuring the park could move forward," Harris said.

Still, the inclusion of several land and park measures into the defense bill has become controversial. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, among others, has argued that the parks measures are extraneous is a defense bill and has vowed to at least slow it down.

Tubman was around 27 when she fled Maryland for Pennsylvania. Her return trips for friends, family and others made her one of the most productive conductors of the Underground Railroad — she is believed to have helped some 70 to freedom.

She also served as a spy for the Union army during the Civil War, and later worked with Susan B. Anthony and others in the campaign for women's suffrage.

The land donated by the Conservation Fund once was home to Jacob Jackson, a free black man who used coded messages from Tubman to coordinate the escape of her brothers.

In 2007, Maryland acquired 17.3 acres of land for a state park, located about 10 miles south of Cambridge and near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. State and federal officials broke ground this month on a $21 million, 15,000-square-foot visitors center that is expected to open in 2015.

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"Elevating a portion of this site to National Park status is more than fitting since Tubman's legacy as a national hero is one that should never be forgotten," said Bill Crouch, Maryland director of the Conservation Fund, which donated some of the land to the federal government.

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