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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Historic status eyed for Tubman sites

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrats, along with New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer, are working with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) to commemorate the life, hard work and rich history of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and her impact on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Auburn, N.Y.

Harriet Ross Tubman, known to many as "the Moses of her people," was born into slavery in the mid-1800s on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, risked great danger and endured many hardships as she reportedly made 19 trips to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom. Many think it is time that her birthplace, the path to freedom that she led and her last known place of residence be honored as National Park Service sites.

The respective bills introduced in the House and the Senate, S. 227 and H.R. 1078, have the full support of Miss Mikulski, Mr. Cardin and Mr. Schumer, in addition to 58 co-sponsors. The NPCA, with the congressional supporters, hopes that making the Tubman sites national parks will increase efforts to educate people about who Tubman was and the lifelong work she dedicated herself to completing.

"Hopefully by the time all of this is done, we have a better idea of Harriet Tubman and the role she played," said Alan Spears, legislative representative for the NPCA.

The site in Maryland will touch on the early years of Tubman's life, while the New York site will deal with her later years.

"They are very much needed," Mr. Spears said.

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, as it is titled in bills, will encompass her home, the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church where she worshipped, the Tubman Home for the Aged and the Fort Hill Cemetery where she was laid to rest, all of which are located in Auburn, N.Y.

In contrast with the New York site, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park would not be as developed as the New York site.

However, the Maryland area, which extends through Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties, is said to be one that Tubman would recognize as her home, as she lived there as a young girl. The rural location is intended to offer visitors a real sense of what it was like to escape slavery and risk life for your friends and family.

"It will give people some idea, some understanding of what it meant, what you had to undergo in order to take yourself to make the escape from slavery to freedom," Mr. Spears said.

As these landmarks are in the early planning stages and pending a passing vote from the House and Senate, they are going to offer not only historical contributions but educational opportunities as well, he added.

The NPCA and senators are planning to offer grants to historically black college and university students studying black history relating to Harriet Tubman, the historic landscape and the Underground Railroad. This is just one of the reasons why supporters are pushing for the bill to pass before the 111th Congress adjourns in October.

"That's another incentive to get this done, because it's okay to have the site, but you also have to have people continuing to delve into this woman's [Harriet Tubman's] life," Mr. Spears added.

Although legislators hope that the bill will be voted on and passed as early as September 2009, they are concerned about scheduling conflicts on the House and Senate agendas, Mr. Spears said. They are fully aware of and understand that there are more pressing issues - the economy, war and health care reform, just to name a few.

Mr. Spears noted that "There are some competing interests and things that Congress has to contend with, but we're hoping that it [the legislation] gets its turn in the fall of this year."

• Dominique Kelly is a freelance writer living in Prince George's County.