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The Struggle To Honor A Hero In The Fight Against Slavery

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The visitor center and grounds will cover 17 acres, a few miles south of Cambridge, Md.
Jacob Fenston
The visitor center and grounds will cover 17 acres, a few miles south of Cambridge, Md.

This weekend marks 100 years since the death of one of America's most famous abolitionists. Underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman lived the first 30 years of her life — enslaved — in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's been more than a decade since efforts began to establish a national historic park in her honor, and while the legislation has stalled in Congress, a new state park is breaking ground.

In Dorchester County, Harriet Tubman is a local hero. For some, that's because of deep family connections to the area. Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization, has traced his local roots all the way back to the early-and-mid-1800s, and found free ancestors living just a couple of miles from Harriet Tubman.

"My father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather were farmers in the Dorchester County area."

Pinder says it's Tubman's determination that is most inspiring.

"A lot of people would have done the same thing that Harriet Tubman done. But Harriet, she repeated this. Most people would have escaped, resettled their lives and moved on."

The push for Harriet Tubman's recognition

Clara Small, who teaches African American history at Salisbury University, says Tubman returned to Maryland between 13 and 19 times, helping hundreds escape to freedom.

"Harriet is one of my favorite individuals," says Small. "I call her my personal she-ro. She's so much a part of what I study, and she's so much a part of this area, that to me she's still alive."

Small says even though Harriet Tubman is a household name, her contributions have yet to be properly recognized.

But since at least the mid-90s, Tubman fans on the Eastern Shore have been lobbying for broader official recognition. In 2000, the National Park Service started studying the potential for a park in Tubman's honor.

In a report released in 2008, the agency recommended creating new parks both in Maryland, and in Auburn, New York, where Tubman lived later in life. Lawmakers introduced legislation in Congress to establish parks during the past two sessions, and reintroduced it earlier this year.

Supporters of the national park plan were hoping it would be in the works by this weekend, in time for centennial celebrations. But it's not, so state officials have decided to go it alone for the time being, breaking ground on a state park visitor center this weekend.

Glenn Carowan, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says it's expected to open January 2015, and could see as many as 100,000 visitors a year.

"The great thing about this, is that the area really hasn't changed that much. When you drive around Dorchester County, the landscapes are almost identical, with the exception of the paved highways and the electric lines and that sort of thing, during her time here."

Honoring more women and minorities

Supporters of a Tubman National Park point out that relatively few monuments are currently dedicated to anyone other than white men.

Mike Litterst, with the National Park Service, says that's something the Obama administration is trying to change.

"There are approximately 80,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, which is administered by the National Park Service, and a very, very small percent, less than 10 percent, of those are dedicated to minorities or to women."

While Congress may never get around to dedicating a park in Tubman's honor, there is another possible route: President Obama could create one by presidential proclamation. That's how the most recent National Park was born, when Obama established the Cesar Chavez National Monument in California last October.


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Photos: Harriet Tubman

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