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Finding Harriet Tubman's spirit

March is a good month to think about the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Eastern Maryland, the first national park site named after an African American woman. Harriet was born in March, made up her mind to flee slavery in March and eventually died in March in 1913 at the age of 91. When we heard about the creation of the new park, we decided we wanted to find "Harriet" and headed down to the Eastern Shore fully aware that the new visitor center had barely broken ground and probably wouldn't be complete until 2016.

We must state up front that we are two middle-aged white women, typical National Park Service visitors; the agency itself knows it has a problem reaching non-whites and is facing the problem head on. It commissioned a study in 2011 from the University of Wyoming; the report showed that only one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, and only one in 10 is Hispanic, America's fastest growing demographic. NPS has even raised outside funds to provide free trips to national parks for African American and Hispanic travel groups. The centerpiece of the NPS Centennial Campaign for 2016: inviting every American to get to know the national parks.

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Promoting such inclusion requires celebrating all that the national parks represent, not just the remarkable landscapes or dramatic historic sites, but often simply the idea or spirit that a place embodies.

We did find Harriet in Eastern Maryland.

We found her in the snow geese at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge that swooshed up in a feather-white mass before settling back into the fields.

"I wonder how many of those geese Harriet had to pluck?" Susan asked out loud.

We knew that Harriet often remarked that she did "all the work of a man," which entailed working in a lumber mill along canals hand dug by slaves in the heat, bugs and muck. The canals still stitch the landscape together; they feel more like gashes when you consider how many slaves died to create them. As a woman, she would have plucked geese, hauled water, lugged firewood and other endless physical labors that left most slaves old by age 50.

A stand of old oaks still rims the farm run by her owner, Edward Brodess, and marks the edge of the site for the future visitor center. We walked around the oldest tree we could find, convinced that it may very well have stood when Harriet lived. Looking back toward the refuge, we saw gray sky and marshes in every direction — hardly an easy place to walk away from undetected.

After her master's untimely death in March 1849, Harriet thought in earnest about escaping. Perhaps the March winds had too much bite left in them, or Harriet didn't feel she could slip away undetected close to home, but she didn't make her successful run for freedom until October. She worked out a clever plan and took advantage of the fact that Brodess' widow had hired her out to another plantation near Poplar Neck on Choptank River. Scholars think a local white Quaker woman helped Harriet.

Back at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a National Park Service employee questioned how anyone could survive the bugs, snakes, and general exposure in the marshes in any season.

"A person would really have to want their freedom to do that," she said.

By officially protecting the former Brodess farm in Harriet Tubman's honor, the National Park Service not only celebrates an African American woman who freed herself and as many as 70 other slaves, but also makes visitors see connections between past and present they wouldn't normally see. Now they will see the wildlife and be immersed in the story of a slave woman who navigated this landscape and guided herself and others by the North Star. The fact few structures from Harriet's time still stand really doesn't matter because the National Park site celebrates an idea and a woman's spirit. Enough remains of what she knew — the geese, the waterways, the farms — that it works.

Maryland has created a driving tour of key spots related to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but other than a small museum in Cambridge with limited hours, there's no place to gather in her full story. We did find out about an outdoor mural created by one of Harriet's descendants, Charles Ross; the artwork stands in a small garden with educational panels so worn we could barely read them. It all sits on a scrap of land near busy roads and a Dollar Store. The National Park Service made the right decision when it decided to pull her story out of these shadows.

Such narrative-building steps — not physical landmarks — will do more to draw non-whites to our National Parks than any other action. For the longest time the National Parks have been the story of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, admirable white men who created one of our most precious public resources, but only by adding a wider range of characters to that pantheon will every visitor feel welcomed.

Mary Collins is a professor of nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University; her email is penmary@aol.com. Susan McElhinney is a professional sculptor and photo editor for Ranger Rick Magazine; her email is Mcelhinney@nwf.org.

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