Harriet Tubman, the famous freedom fighter and Underground Railroad conductor, may soon become the first African-American woman to be honored with her own national parks.
The U.S House of Representatives on Dec. 4 approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which included creation of two Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Parks — in Maryland and New York.
The U.S Senate voted to proceed with consideration of the massive defense bill, with the Tubman parks intact, on Thursday. A final Senate vote is expected on Friday at the earliest.
The park is expected to increase tourism, create jobs and strengthen Dorchester County’s local economy. In 2010, tourism represented one-fifth of Dorchester County’s employment, generating more than $132 million for the local economy, according to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
The new historic park will trace Tubman’s early life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she spent 30 years as a slave before escaping from bondage in 1849.
She went on to become one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses designed to help African-American slaves find their way to freedom in the northern states and Canada during the 19th century.
The park would include sites in three counties: Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot.
A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act allows for the National Park Service to acquire seven non-contiguous parcels of land that hold historical significance to Tubman’s life.
The bill also calls for the creation of a historic park in Auburn, N.Y., in order to commemorate the area where Tubman spent her later years. The park would include her home; the Home for the Aged named for her; and the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church.
In 2013, President Barack Obama established the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, allowing for the National Historical Park designation. A national monument preserves at least one important national resource; a national park is usually larger and includes a variety of nationally significant resources, according to the National Park Service.
The monument in Cambridge will serve as a part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which is under construction and expected to open in 2015, according to the National Park Service.
Mikulski has been advocating for the parks since 2008 along with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. They helped to secure more than $900,000 in federal funds to improve historical signs, infrastructure and utilities, according to a statement from Mikulski’s office. Maryland has also been granted $11 million from the U.S. Departments of Interior and Transportation. The funds will go toward the park.
“A Harriet Tubman National Historical Park is a fitting tribute to honor her lasting legacy in Maryland and our nation while inspiring future generations of women and girls,” Mikulski said. “I look forward to swift passage in the Senate so that President Obama can sign this legislation into law.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., have also been active in the process.
“Through bipartisan work with Sen. Cardin, we are able to create a national park to honor Harriet Tubman while protecting local property owners,” Harris said.
A large portion of the designated national park area will be on federal land owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It will remain under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and part of the national monument, according to the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets budgetary guidelines for the Department of Defense.
The park will consist of 775 acres in Talbot County, 2,200 in Caroline County, and 2,775 in Dorchester County.
The sites include Tubman’s likely birthplace in Dorchester County; the Brodess Plantation parcel, where she worked as a young girl; the Cook Plantation parcel, where as a teenager she worked as a seamstress; and Poplar Neck plantation, where Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849.
“Tourism has been a big help to our business,” said Anthony Thomas, owner of Canvasback Restaurant and Irish Pub in Cambridge. “I’m sure when the park comes, it will be even better.”
Thomas estimated at least 16 tour buses a year come to visit the Harriet Tubman Museum and Learning Center next door to his restaurant. Many visitors stop by to eat at Canvasback after they’re finished at the Museum.
Carol Ruark, owner of A Few of My Favorite Things Gourmet and Gifts, also located on the same block as the Tubman museum, said she hasn’t noticed a significant tourism impact. However, she appreciates the educational opportunity that the museum and future park will provide.
“When they hold conferences that brings a lot of business,” she said. “But usually, there is no difference.”
While visiting the museum, on Race Street in Cambridge, patrons may view paintings and photographs of Tubman as well as some of the landmarks that will be included in the national park. Visitors at the museum can also schedule 2- to 3-hour guided tours of the historical sites and stops on the Underground Railroad before the park’s 2015 opening.
Chris Kendrick, an audio-visual engineer visiting Saturday from Kensington, said he appreciated the Tubman museum as a student of history and noted its relevancy amid today’s racial climate in the United States.
“What I love is that we are in a time where people will finally be able to love each other and be neighbors and not promulgate the kind of attitudes that Harriet Tubman was willing to fight against and even die for,” Kendrick said.
“Harriet Tubman was an iconic figure our nation’s history, for whom liberty and freedom were not just ideas,” said Sen. Cardin in a press release last week. “More than 100 years after her death, Harriet Tubman will become the first African-American woman and first individual woman to have a National Historical Park named in her honor. It’s a great day for the Eastern Shore and our country.”
By Daniel Kerry