State Set to Break Ground on Harriet Tubman Park

Gale Horton Gay | 2/27/2013, 12:02 p.m.

While the creation of a national park honoring abolitionist Harriet Ross Tubman remains unresolved in Congress, Maryland officials are moving forward with the development of a state park in her name.

A groundbreaking is scheduled for March 9 in Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a state park honoring Tubman. Dorchester County is where Tubman was born and died.

Maryland's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park will include interpretive trails, a spiritual reflection garden and memorial, picnic pavilion, outdoor exhibits and a visitor center. The 15,000-square-foot visitor center will immerse visitors into the life of Tubman, starting with her childhood, following her as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and culminating with her advocacy for justice.

"We can't be more honored to have the opportunity to tell the story of an American hero whose bravery and actions really exemplify the American story of freedom, liberty and pursuit of happiness," said Nita Settina, superintendent of the Maryland Park Service.

The groundbreaking comes on the eve of the centennial of Tubman's death.

Settina said the 17-acre park site, adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Church Creek on Route 335, is located in the heart of the area where Tubman returned time and again. Born in Dorchester County in 1822, Tubman escaped slavery at the age of 27 but returned 13 times and freed approximately 70 enslaved family members and others.

"Tubman's associated success on the Underground Railroad stemmed from her intimate knowledge of the area's woodlands and swamps, making the park setting an ideal location," according to information provided by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The state park is expected to cost $21.4 million, of which the federal government has allocated $12 million in grants, Settina said. A 2014 or 2015 opening is expected.

Meanwhile four U.S. senators including Maryland's Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have introduced the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act, which would establish two national historical parks, one in Maryland and one in New York, where Tubman was active in the suffrage movement. The bill was previously introduced in the three previous congresses.

On Feb. 13 at the U.S. Capitol, Cardin, Rep. Donna F. Edwards (Md.); Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.); Rep. Dan Maffei (N.Y.);Rep. Marcia Fudge (Ohio) as well as representatives of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women held a press conference to voice their support for passage of federal legislation that would create the two national Tubman parks.

"Harriet Tubman is a true American hero, whose journeys along the Eastern Shore will mark Maryland forever," said Bill Crouch, The Conservation Fund's Maryland director. The fund has acquired and is willing to donate a home site to the National Park Service for the national park in Maryland.

The parks are also viewed as a "new resource, bringing in substantial revenue to our communities and creating jobs," state officials said.

Settina said the national Tubman park, if approved, would be established on property adjacent to the Maryland park. She said she sees the state park as the trail head for visitors' exploration of the larger area.

In July, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Cardin, Mikulski and Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland contacted the U.S. Department of the Interior requesting the establishment of a national monument to recognize Tubman's contributions.

"Federal recognition of Harriet Tubman, one of our nation's great freedom and equal rights heroes, is long overdue," said O'Malley. "A national monument designation will further our commitment to share her courageous life story and legacy of justice, and protect the rural landscape of her birthplace on Maryland's Eastern Shore."

Cardin said the monument was a first step.