The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and the visitor center are opening the weekend of March 10-12. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
I wonder what Harriet Tubman would make of all the fuss being made about her.
First came news last year that her face will grace the next generation of $20 bills. Then a couple of weekends ago, we witnessed the grand opening of the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in a state park named for her and the launch of a 125-mile drive-through-history byway — all created in the Eastern Shore, where she was born into slavery, escaped and returned numerous times to lead others to freedom.
The stories of Tubman and other freedom seekers, as they are called in the tourism brochures, hold many sobering lessons for those of us trying to make sense of the country we have come to be — a nation led by a president who lies as easily as he tweets. With wild accusations that congressional leaders and even the heads of the FBI and the National Security Agency say are unfounded, he seeks to distract media and anti-Trump activists from following his diabolical plans to destroy the country I have known in my six decades of life.
Tubman saw from childhood around the Cambridge, Md., area the gulfs between the aspirational America ("We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal") and the reality of an America that built its wealth from the enslavement of human beings from the African continent. Prior to the Civil War, there were more free blacks (4,684) than enslaved (4,123) in Dorchester County, Tubman's home turf. How liberty loving, church-building folks could reconcile the notions of freedom and slavery is as incomprehensible to me today as it was intolerable to Tubman and countless others then.
At the visitor center, which opened to great fanfare and a crush of pilgrims, descendants and the merely curious, we have models of both inhumanity and moral courage. We learn of the acts of ordinary people who challenged the status quo — for blacks and whites, free and enslaved, men and women — and despite great odds, ultimately triumphed. But, as the late Coretta Scott King said, "Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation."
Along with the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the Tubman park helps people of all stations begin to know that which has been deliberately kept from us in whitewashed textbooks and in the white male-focused American saga — from the discovery of these lands by Europeans looking for India to the real and fictional heroes of our times. These cultural centers bring to life the spirit of resistance, the resolve, the cunning and the skill involved in leading others out of bondage in stealthy trips back to the Eastern Shore after Tubman had made her own escape to the North.
She was born Araminta and called Minty. While still enslaved, she married a free man, John Tubman. Later, in freedom, she renamed herself after her mother, who was Harriet, or Rit. Her father was Ben. Family ties among the enslaved were often ignored by the slavers, so members were casually sold as individual commodities, yanked away from their kin. After she got away, Tubman was prompted to return the first time, at great risk, to save a niece from a pending sale. On other trips, using the Underground Railroad that brought her to freedom, she liberated others.
I am hopeful that this American story will be seen as that by people of all stations. However, I especially hope it is an eye opener for the young blacks I hear denouncing the enslaved as weaklings and cowards for "allowing" themselves to be kept in such conditions. Au contraire. Only the strongest survived. And because of that, we are here.
In Tubman's lifetime commitment to faith, family and the aspirational America, we see intersectionality with those pursuing religious freedom, like the Quakers, and those pursuing gender equality, like the suffragettes. In the Underground Railroad, we see people willing to harbor refugees fleeing intolerable conditions — not unlike the networks of faith communities and social justice activists currently organizing to protect undocumented immigrants.
This is no history preserved in amber. As we walk the land and cross the rivers and creeks that Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and so many others knew well, we might draw sustenance for these times. "Always remember," Tubman said, "you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.