Nearly two centuries after the famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman was born on a Maryland plantation, a new historical site bearing her name has opened to the public and will cast a broad light on her life, her struggles and her works.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center opened last weekend near Church Creek, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Tubman spent the first part of her life—nearly three decades–enslaved.
“Harriet Tubman’s contributions to our state and nation transcend race, gender, nationality and religion, and her legacy continues to inspire others to this day,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, who was part of ribbon cutting events with Tubman’s descendants, dignitaries, historical re-enactors and the public.
The site is part of a state and national park complex, managed jointly by Maryland and federal officials. In 2013, around the 100th anniversary of her death, President Obama established a national Harriet Tubman monument in Maryland.
That action helped pave the way for Congress to enact legislation for two national parks devoted to the freedom fighter: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historical Park in her birthplace, and a companion park in Auburn, New York, where she spent five decades and died in 1913 around age 90.
State and local officials in Maryland hope the interest in Tubman will draw tourists from across the country and beyond.
“Visitors will discover a legacy garden and an outdoor recreational pavilion with a stone fireplace, which is perfect for family reunions,” said Connie Yingling, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Tourism.
Moreover, the 10,000 square foot center designed by Chris Elcock, an African-American architect, is a light-filled space with exhibitions, bronze cast figures, photographs, research space, and a museum store.
Immersive educational displays reveal Tubman’s life and times, such as a list with names of some of the individuals who she freed. Another exhibit—depicting Tubman in a boat stretching her hands towards people flailing in a body of water—showcases her valor during the Civil War.
The national park, adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, will incorporate former plantations (some private and not publicly accessible) and an Underground Railroad stop.
The center will serve as the gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a self-guided 125 mile driving tour that winds through a landscape dotted with groves of trees, marshes, streams and wide open spaces. It includes more than 40 historically significant sites related to the Underground Railroad.
Born Araminta “Minty” Ross between 1820 and 1825, one of nine siblings, history knows Tubman as a liberator of those in bondage through the Underground Railroad, but she also served as a spy, scout and nurse for the Union during the Civil War, as well as later a women’s suffragist and a humanitarian. She was married twice and adopted a child.
Using the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, and guided by the light of the North Star, she made her way to Delaware, then finally to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a free state. Later, the “conductor” repeatedly risked her own freedom to emancipate others.
Historian Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero” said her most recent research indicates Tubman returned to Maryland about 13 times over a decade to liberate her parents, brothers, relatives and others—approximately 70 people.
Larson, the park’s historical consultant, notes that the woman who’d be called “Moses” for leading her people to freedom, also gave detailed instructions which allowed dozens more in Maryland to escape bondage.
“To be in this place where Harriet was born, to walk the same lands she walked, is special,” said Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the Tubman state park. “I’m always amazed at her life.”
Valerie Ross-Manokey, Tubman’s great-great niece, who was at the center’s opening, is thrilled her aunt’s legacy is garnering widespread recognition. “It’s about time,” she said.