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Benjamin C.
Democrat MD

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  • Enactment of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act

    by Senator Benjamin L. Cardin

    Posted on 2014-12-12

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    CARDIN. Madam President, I wish to celebrate the long awaited enactment of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act, a bill to establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY. This is an effort that I have worked closely with Senators Mikulski, Schumer and Gillibrand as well as Secretary Clinton, when she represented New York in this body, and mark the culmination of the legislative work on this effort started by my predecessor, Senator Sarbanes when he passed legislation commissioning the National Service to conduct a Special Resource Study on Harriet Tubman. We all share a deep appreciation for how important establishing these parks is to preserving the legacy of this remarkable historical figure in American History but also to how important these parks will be to the communities where they will be located.

    In my career, I have spoken on the Senate Floor, at events in Maryland, in meetings with constituents and with my colleagues about Harriet Tubman's legacy. While I hope each opportunity I have taken to discuss the life of this remarkable woman helps raise awareness about her importance to the history of our great nation, my ultimate goal has always been to properly commemorate her life and her work by establishing the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and, to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY.

    For the last 7 years I have championed the legislation that was enacted today as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

    I also greatly appreciate the support this legislation received in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate as a whole. In both this Congress and the 112 Congress, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act was reported out of committee with bipartisan support including the support of Chairwoman Landrieu and Ranking Member Murkowski. I am incredibly grateful for the work of the Chair and Ranking Member, and their staffs, to maintain progress on the bill which has led to its passage today.

    The establishment of the Harriet Tubman Historical Parks has been years in the making and is long overdue. The mission of the National Park Service has evolved over time from not only preserving natural wonders across the U.S. for recreational purposes but also commemorating unique places of significance to historical events and extraordinary Americans that have shaped our nation.

    The woman, who is known to us as Harriet Tubman, was born in approximately 1822 in Dorchester County, MD, and given the name Araminta, Minty, Ross. She spent nearly 30 years of her life in slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She worked on a number of different plantations on Maryland's Eastern Shore and as a teenager was trained to be a seamstress. As an adult she took the first name Harriet, and when she was 25 years-old married John Tubman.

    In her late twenties, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849. She fled in the dead of night, navigating the maze of tidal streams and wetlands that, to this day, comprise the Eastern Shore's landscape. She did so alone, demonstrating courage, strength and fortitude that became her hallmarks. Not satisfied with attaining her own freedom, she returned repeatedly for more than 10 years to the places of her enslavement in Dorchester and Caroline counties where, under the most adverse conditions, she led away many family members and other slaves to freedom in the Northeastern United States. She helped develop a complex network of safe houses and recruited abolitionist sympathizers residing along secret routes connecting the Southern slave states and Northern Free States. No one knows exactly how many people she led to freedom or the number of trips between the North and South she led, but the legend of her work was an inspiration to the multitude of slaves seeking freedom and to abolitionists fighting to end slavery. Tubman became known as ``the Moses of her people'' by African-Americans and white abolitionists alike. Tubman once proudly told Frederick Douglass that in all of her journeys she ``never lost a single passenger.'' She was so effective that in 1856 there was a $40,000 reward offered for her capture in the South. She is the most famous and most important conductor of the network of resistance known as the Underground Railroad.

    During the Civil War, Tubman served the Union forces as a spy, a scout and a nurse. She served in Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina. She is credited with leading slaves from those slave states to freedom during those years as well.

    Following the Civil War, and the emancipation of all black slaves, Tubman settled in Auburn, NY. There she was active in the women's suffrage movement, and she also established one of the first incorporated African-American homes for aged to care for the elderly. In 1903 she bequeathed the Tubman Home to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn where it stands to this day. Harriet Tubman died in Auburn in 1913 and she is buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery. Fortunately many of the structures and landmarks in New York remain intact and in relatively good condition.

    Only recently has the Park Service begun establishing units dedicated to the lives of African-Americans. Places like Booker T. Washington National Monument on the campus of the Tuskegee University in Alabama, the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri, The Buffalo Soldiers at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the National Historical Trail commemorating the March for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, and most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall are all important monuments and places of historical significance that help tell the story of the African- American experience.

    As the National Park Service continues its important work to recognize and preserve African-American history by providing greater public access and information about the places and people that have shaped the African-American experience, there are very few units dedicated to the lives of African-American women, and there are no National Historical Parks commemorating African-American women.

    I cannot think of a more fitting hero than Harriet Tubman to be the first African-American woman to be memorialized with National Historical Parks that tell both her personal story and her lifelong fight for justice and freedom starting with her fight against the cruel institution of slavery and work of the Underground Railroad she led to her work in the women's suffrage movement.

    I am grateful for the support of my colleagues. These parks will hopefully pave the way for the Park Service to develop more National Historical Parks commemorating the lives of many other important African-American women in our history.

    The vision for the Tubman National Historical Parks is to preserve the places significant to the life of Harriet Tubman and tell her story through interpretative activities and continue to discover aspects of her life and the experience of passage along the Underground Railroad through archaeological research and discovery.

    The buildings and structures in Maryland have mostly disappeared. Slaves were forced to live in primitive buildings even though many slaves were skilled tradesmen who constructed the substantial homes of their owners. Not surprisingly, few of the structures associated with the early years of Tubman's life remain standing today. The landscape of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, however, is still evocative of the time that Tubman lived there. Farm fields and loblolly pine forests dot the lowland landscape, which is also notable for its extensive network of tidal rivers and wetlands that Tubman, and the people she guided to freedom, under the cover of night. In particular, a number of properties including the homestead of Ben Ross, her father, Stewart's Canal, where he worked, the Brodess Farm, where she worked as a slave, and others are within the master plan boundaries of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

    [[Page S6774]] Similarly, Poplar Neck, the plantation from which she escaped to freedom, is still largely intact in Caroline County. The properties in Talbot County, immediately across the Choptank River from the plantation, are currently protected by various conservation easements. Were she alive today, Tubman would recognize much of the landscape that she knew intimately as she secretly led black men, women and children to freedom.

    There has never been any doubt that Tubman led an extraordinary life. Her contributions to American history are surpassed by few. Determining the most appropriate way to recognize that life and her contributions, however, has been exceedingly difficult. The National Park Service determined that designating a Historical Park that would include two geographically separate units would be an appropriate tribute to the life of this extraordinary American. The New York unit would include the tightly clustered Tubman buildings in the town of Auburn. The Maryland portion would include large sections of landscapes that are evocative of Tubman's time and are historically relevant.

    Harriet Tubman was a true American patriot. She was someone for whom liberty and freedom were not just concepts but values she fought tirelessly for. She lived those principles and so selflessly helped others attain freedom. In doing so, she has earned a Nation's respect and honor.

    Harriet Tubman is one of many great Americans that we honor and celebrate every February during Black History Month. In schools across the country, American History curriculums teach our children about Tubman's courage, conviction, her fight for freedom and her contributions to the greatness of our Nation during a contentious time in U.S. history. Now it is time to add to Tubman's legacy by preserving and commemorating the places evocative of Harriet Tubman's extraordinary life.

    Every year, millions of school children, as well as millions of adults, visit our National Historical Parks gain the experience and knowledge about our Nation's history that simply cannot be found in history books or on the Internet. Our Nation's strength and character comes from the actions of the Americans who came before us and the significant events that shaped our Nation. The National Park Service is engaged in the important work of preserving the places where American history was made and providing a tangible experience for current and future generations to experience and understand. It is one thing to learn about Harriet Tubman from a book, and it is yet a completely different and fulfilling experience to explore, see, listen to and feel the places where she worked as a slave, where she escaped from and where she lived out her life as a free American.

    The National Park Service is uniquely suited to honor and preserve these places of historical significance and I urge my colleagues to join me in preserving and growing the legacy of Harriet Tubman by establishing the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks in her honor.


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