In December, Congress enacted and the president signed a law to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a sister park in New York.
The parks honor Tubman, who became a hero in the abolitionist movement and who is the first African-American woman honored with a national park. It also provides a compelling demonstration of how conserving land also conserves history, and opens the door to many other exciting opportunities including education, recreation and wildlife viewing.
Tubman was a small woman, but a towering historical figure. She was born in 1822 into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County, MD. In 1849, she escaped and fled north to freedom. She returned to the Chesapeake several times to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Later she played important roles in the Civil War and the women’s suffrage movement. She settled in Auburn, NY, where she established a home for “aged and indigent colored people.” National recognition for this U.S. hero was overdue.
Citizens, led by the Tubman Organization, have tried for decades to establish the park. Their vision was supported by regional organizations such as the Chesapeake Conservancy, and national organizations such as the NAACP, the Conservation Fund and National Parks Conservation Association. The vision was finally achieved through the leadership of Maryland’s state and federally elected officials, including: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. Andy Harris and former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
In 2000, then Sen. Paul Sarbanes championed a bill to authorize a special resource study concerning the preservation and public use of sites associated with Harriet Tubman. This study, completed in 2008, recommended a national park.
Appropriately impatient, in 2007, Maryland acquired 17.3 acres of land for a state park to honor Tubman. The property is 10 miles south of Cambridge, near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It will be the site of a state-of-the-art visitor’s center that is expected to open in 2015. The state park is complemented by a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, which runs along country roads that connect significant points in her history.
In 2013, President Obama set the stage for the new national historical park when he established the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Dorchester County. The national monument and park will merge to preserve the landscape associated with Harriet Tubman’s life. Many of our well known national parks started as national monuments.
The recent park legislation authorizes the National Park Service to acquire parcels of land through deed transfer or conservation easement.
In Maryland, sites in Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties would comprise the park. They include Tubman’s likely birthplace, the site of the Brodess Plantation where she worked as a young girl, the Cook Plantation where the teenage Tubman worked as a seamstress, and Poplar Neck where she escaped from slavery in 1849.
The Maryland land is rural. This landscape looks similar to when Tubman lived here. Much of it is farmland, forests and marshland. Nearly half of the park would lie within or next to the boundaries of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The park is expected to increase tourism and create jobs in Dorchester County, where the visitor’s center will be located, and along the heritage driving trail that links the Maryland sites. Tourism and recreation are already significant parts of Dorchester County’s economy, and the Harriet Tubman National Underground Railroad National Historical Park will add a major attraction for those interested in history.
Currently, schoolchildren and others learn about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad from books, websites or museums. Imagine the impression they will have about Tubman and the Underground Railroad if they visit where she lived as a girl and the countryside through which she led others to freedom. Along the way, they may also see an osprey or a Delmarva fox squirrel and gain appreciation for nature.
The national park and state park should open during the coming year. But visitors are already able to drive or cycle the well-marked Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and follow Tubman’s life using the interpretative materials developed by the state. Visitors can download a map, guide and audio tour from www.harriettubmanbyway.org or call the Caroline County or Dorchester County tourism offices to get one.
And remember, when we conserve land, we conserve history (national, and sometimes very local), protect ecosystems and open opportunities for public recreation and education.