Harriet Tubman visitor center: a good first step

Harriet Tubman was one tough lady. She escaped slavery, fleeing an Eastern Shore plantation. She was a leader in the Underground Railroad, traveling at night under the North Star — probably along the Choptank River — hiding at safe houses along the path to freedom. During the Civil War, she saw duty as a spy, assisting Union forces that raided plantations and freed slaves along the Combahee River in South Carolina.

Tubman played an outsized role in American history, a contribution that is recently (and belatedly) being justly recognized. This week, the state of Maryland announced that it had secured a mixture of federal and state funds to build the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center about 10 miles south of Cambridge. When completed two years from now, the visitor center will house an exhibit hall and interactive displays. There are also plans for walking trails and a garden on the grounds.

This project was a long time in getting off the ground. An earlier attempt in 2007 stalled for lack of money. But state officials pieced together a variety of funding sources, including $8.5 million from the federal Transportation Enhancement Program, to come up with the $21 million needed to make the project a go. The 15,000-square-foot visitor center is expected to attract tourists and pump dollars into the local economy. The construction phase is slated to create about 225 jobs, and the center is expected to have a staff of 10.

All of this is work well done, but there is more to do to properly honor Tubman.

The next task is creating a historic national park in her name. The proposed park, composed of four sites in Dorchester County and one each in Talbot and Caroline counties, would mark the locales where Ms. Tubman was born and toiled as a slave, and a safe house where "passengers" on the Underground Railroad were hidden. This park would enable visitors to walk in Tubman's footsteps, and — aided by talks from park rangers — come to a deeper understanding of a period of American history and the extraordinary achievements of this strong-willed Maryland native. A smaller national park is also projected for Auburn, N.Y., where she lived later in life working on the women's suffrage movement and establishing a home there for elderly African-Americans.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, backed by his fellow Maryland Democrat Sen. Barbara Mikulski and New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have put forth a bill in the Senate that would fold the Maryland and New York sites into the National Park Service. Making the 5,700 acres in Maryland and the smaller New York site a national park would cost an estimated $15 million.

In the past, there had been no comparable effort in the House of Representatives. But this week, the office of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, whose district includes the Eastern Shore sites, said Mr. Harris is working with fellow Republican New York Rep. Richard Hanna to designate the lands as a historic national park. This is a welcome sign. Given the tough fiscal climate in Washington and the anti-spending attitude of the House, crafting a way to move this effort forward will require considerable skill. We wish them well.

As this page has stated, even in the hard times, we cannot turn our back on our past. Scores of historic park sites, such as the Appomattox Courthouse, were established when the nation was in much worse financial shape.

Building a Harriet Tubman visitor center is a welcome first step in the project that will both preserve the legacy of this remarkable woman and bring jobs to an area with some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Establishing the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park would finish the task.

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