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Harriet’s Homecoming

The road was long and never smooth for Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman made history as an abolitionist, as the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War and as a suffragist. Now, over 100 years after her death, she is making history again.
    In December 2014, Congress voted to establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. It is the first national park honoring an African American woman.
    Araminta Harriet Ross, later to be known as Harriet Tubman, hails from Dorchester County, Maryland, where she was born into slavery in 1822. ­Following the Underground Railroad, she escaped to freedom in 1849.
    As we know, her story does not end there. Tubman returned to Dorchester County at least 13 times over the course of 11 years to lead more than 70 enslaved African Americans to freedom.
    After retiring as an Underground Railroad conductor at nearly 40 years old (her last trip was in 1861), she put down roots on the outskirts of Auburn, New York, where she had settled her parents after freeing them. The community was rich with freed African Americans and abolitionists and was also near to other family members.
    Still, Tubman wasn’t ready to retire. She continued to fight injustice and care for people in need until her dying day in 1913. She was a key player in the Civil War, in the women’s suffragist movement and in her community. She inspired many civil rights leaders and freedom fighters around the world.
    “Whenever I get discouraged and tired, I think, what would Harriet do,” says Ellen Mousin coordinator of the annual Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference.
    If we have learned anything from Tubman, it is that good things take time and are worth fighting for. Tubman-like tenacity of spirit has finally led to the preservation of the landscape she called home.
The Centennial Splurge
    Dorchester County has celebrated its local heroine for decades. At home, she is honored with Harriet Ross Tubman Day, a museum in Cambridge, a memorial garden and the community-based Harriet Tubman Organization. This organization first proposed a national park in her honor back in 1996. Two decades later, Maryland and the nation followed through.
    In 2013, the hundredth anniversary of her death, the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway were established by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley just south of Cambridge, next to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
    At the same time, O’Malley commissioned an official statuary portrait of Tubman. Sculptor Brendan O’Neill Sr.’s bust of Tubman as a young woman was welcomed to Government House this year.
    The centennial brought national recognition, as well: President Barack Obama created the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which includes locations in Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot counties. Don’t expect to find a physical structure as part of this designation. The monument is an area of federal, state and privately held lands that hold key Tubman historic sites and make up the landscape she intimately knew.
    The National Monument paved the way for the epitome of national recognition, which came at the end of 2014: a National Park designation. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park is a two-state affair. Maryland’s part encompasses parts of Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties, where she spent her early life. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Auburn, New York, commemorates her later years.
    As of now, the Maryland portion of the National Park is made up of the 400-acre Jacob Jackson home site, donated to the Park Service by The Conservation Fund. Several miles from the state park, this site is located near Stewart’s Canal, where Tubman learned many of her outdoor skills. Jackson is thought to have helped Tubman on her mission to free her brothers.
    With the help of willing landowners, the National Park may expand to include other historic sites in the future.
    “It’s been a long time coming,” says Mousin, the longtime Maryland supporter. “Some of us are still pinching ourselves that it happened. Local people, national and state representatives just didn’t give up.”
    Forty-nine of America’s 400-plus national parks are historical parks, and of those, fewer than 10 recognize women.
    “I can think of few greater examples of bravery, valor and sacrifice about which to teach our future generations,” says Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who championed the effort in Congress. “So it is fitting that Harriet Tubman will become the first individual woman to have a National Historical Park named in her honor.”
    The National Park Service is now fully on board.
    “This is an opportunity for a very special sort of park,” says Brian Joyner of the Maryland portion of the park. Joyner served as acting superintendent of the National Historical Park from the time of its designation until recently.
    This effort is, he says, a partnership. Community experts and scholars, the state, tourism associations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all play a part.
    “Members of the community have been holders of the story,” Joyner says, and the National Park Service is working hard to make sure everyone has a voice in shaping how the story is told.
    “For the community it will be a longstanding monument letting people know that it sometimes doesn’t have to be a movement or a group of people,” says Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization. “It can be one individual who can fight the system and actually win.”
    The Eastern Shore part of the Park will be a unique kind of National Historical Park. Devoid of buildings dating to Tubman’s time, this park celebrates the landscape Tubman knew so well.
    This landscape has been preserved through a patchwork of state and national lands, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, crossed by the Scenic Byway. Tubman might still recognize her route to freedom. The same marshes and lowland forests where she hid are still home to snow geese, fox squirrels and muskrats. The rivers she followed still flow uninhibited into the Chesapeake.
Following Tubman
    To explore Tubman’s homeland, the best place to start is the Harriet Tubman Byway, an All-American Road, the highest level of designation for a scenic byway. This 125-mile self-guided driving tour shows more than 30 historic sites and scenic vistas associated with Tubman throughout Caroline and Dorchester counties.
    (Download the audio tour:  
    Hoping to visit the state park, national monument or national park? You are going to have to be patient. As relatively new sites, no facilities exist; collaborative planning is still underway.
    A gateway to both parks and the byway will come with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, expected in 2016. The center will include exhibit hall and theater, memorial garden, trails and a picnic pavilion. It will also be headquarters for both the state and national parks.
    Until it is complete, get information on the parks and the byway at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

Learn more about Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference: June 5 and 6, Chesapeake College, Cambridge:

National Park Service Site:

State Park Site:

Tubman Center/State Park Design:;

The proposed Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center.