Keeping alive hope for Tubman parks

The Baltimore Sun

As the nation begins a new political chapter with President Barack Obama, there is renewed momentum to honor a Maryland-born heroine who also sought to bring change to America: Harriet Tubman.

Bills are once again before Congress to create state and national parks that would celebrate the life of Tubman, who was born a slave named Araminta Ross on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

"We believe she was born in early 1822, February or March, based on several documents that have been unearthed in the past 10 years or so," said historian Kate Clifford Larson, author of the 2003 biography Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. "She was born enslaved to a family that was living in the Madison area, south of Woolford, in Dorchester County. ... She was the fifth of nine children of Ben Ross and his wife, 'Rit' Green Ross."

For decades, there have been mystery and mythology surrounding Tubman. Larson's book is among several published in recent years that have shed light on details of Tubman's life - from the nearly 30 years she spent in bondage, to her marriage to a freeman, John Tubman, to her desire to be free.

"She ran away Sept. 17, 1849," said Larson, a professor at Simmons College in Boston. "Her runaway ad that was placed in a newspaper by her enslaver, Eliza Brodess, was discovered in January 2003 in a Dumpster." It was found by an Eastern Shore researcher.

Although she returned on her own that time, Tubman eventually made her way to Philadelphia and freedom. Using the Underground Railroad, she returned to Maryland over the course of a decade or so to liberate other slaves, including her elderly parents.

A point of contention in Larson's book involves the number of slaves Tubman led to freedom.

"We have done tremendous research on her rescue missions, her Underground Railroad activities," said Larson. "And we have discovered that she actually returned to Maryland to bring away about 70 friends and family members [in 19 trips], not 300 people."

She added that Tubman reportedly gave instructions to dozens of other slaves, which helped them gain freedom, too. No matter the numbers, the author praises what she calls Tubman's "extraordinary courage."

So does Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization, which operates a Tubman museum in Cambridge. The group has pushed for decades at the grass-roots level to preserve Tubman's legacy, as have others.

"One of Harriet's quotes was, 'I have the right to two things, and that's liberty or death,' " said Pinder. "If she was found out doing the work that she did, her punishment may have been death."

While best known for her valor as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was also a Union nurse and spy during the Civil War and active in the women's suffrage movement. Furthermore, she ran a home for elderly blacks in New York state.

"Harriet Tubman was a true American patriot, for whom liberty and freedom were not just concepts," said U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who joined his Maryland colleague, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, in co-sponsoring Tubman park legislation in July, along with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, both of New York.

Congress adjourned before it could act on the bill. In the meantime, the National Park Service completed a long-awaited special resource study that supports two proposed sites in Maryland and New York. After it received public input, the study was approved by the Interior Department. The Tubman park legislation was reintroduced in Congress in January.

"Her life continues to inspire me," said Mikulski. "That's why I am proud to co-sponsor legislation that will honor, preserve and protect her legacy."

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park would span several thousand acres in Maryland's Caroline, Talbot and Dorchester counties. It would also include a 17-acre state park and visitors' center. A second national park would be in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman spent her final years.

The Maryland park would have "a memorial garden, walking paths, and it will be interconnected with the [surrounding] Blackwater Wildlife Refuge," said Amanda Fenstermaker, Dorchester County's tourism director.

Officials have said federal, state and private funding would be needed for the parks. The bill authorizes $11 million in grants for both Maryland and New York; Maryland has committed at least $1 million.

"Once a contract for the architecture firm is approved by the Board of Public Works, they can get started on the design," Jordan Loran, director of engineering and construction for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said about the state park. "Depending on how things go, we could begin construction as early as August or September 2010."

Some people envision a cottage industry built around Tubman's legacy that would boost the state's tourism coffers.

"The expectation is that when people come to visit [the Eastern Shore], they will go to restaurants and hotels, and want to use outfitters and hike and bike and birdwatch, and do all the things connected to the landscape and to Tubman," said Marci Ross of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. "From that, small businesses can be developed to take advantage of visitation that's coming."

John Creighton, an oysterman turned historian, offers guided tours of sites related to Tubman and sees the national park as an opportunity to attract a more ethnically diverse group of visitors.

"For the first five years that I gave tours for the Harriet Tubman Organization, there was never anybody white on the bus but me," said Creighton. "And this would involve often 40 to 45 people. They were getting up early in the morning and coming from the Bronx, Brooklyn, from Detroit, coming from Philadelphia, New Jersey."

Victoria Jackson-Stanley, Cambridge's first black and first female mayor, said she hopes the community will rally around the plans. At a National Park Service meeting on the Eastern Shore in November, some landowners expressed concerns about property rights because the project will use public and private parcels. But many others expressed support for a park.

"Maybe I haven't spoken to everyone, but everyone I've spoken to is just very excited," Jackson-Stanley said. She added that she and others are "very happy that [officials have] finally realized the importance of Dorchester County and the kind of people that come from [here]. ... Tubman is just one of many."

There's no firm timetable for the parks. But if all goes as planned, they could open in time for the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death: March 10, 2013.

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