Members of Congress climb aboard Tubman tribute train

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Jackie Ross Henry has never thought of herself as a political lobbyist, but this week she visited Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to support creation of national parks that would honor Harriet Tubman.

The day, dubbed “Harriet on the Hill,” had special meaning for Henry. She is a great niece (several generations removed) of the daring Underground Railroad ‘conductor’ who escaped slavery and subsequently led others to freedom.

“We had two busloads with about 110 people that arrived in D.C. People came from all over the country,” said Henry. “We met with designated members of Congress about the national park and why we believe it’s important.”

A multiracial, cross-generational coalition of Tubman supporters traveled to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. The group included Tubman descendants, historians, elected officials, civic leaders, college students, and residents from Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Tubman was born, and Auburn, New York, her home in later years.

The group held a rally and prayed outside the U.S. Capitol — complete with a Tubman re-enactor. Afterwards, small groups met with Senators and House members, advocating for passage of federal legislation that would create Tubman national parks in both Maryland and New York.

For decades, efforts to honor Tubman on a national level have stalled for one reason or another. But longtime proponents like Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), aren’t giving up.

Cardin is the lead sponsor of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act (S. 247), which would establish the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park across three Maryland counties, along with the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York.

Cardin hosted a luncheon for the Tubman supporters and spoke about his efforts to move the bill out of committee and to consideration by the full Senate.

“Harriet on the Hill Day shows that there is strong support for the creation of two national historical parks to honor the legacy of Harriet Tubman, a true American patriot, for whom liberty and freedom were not just concepts,” Cardin said.

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (both D-NY) are original co-sponsors of the legislation. The bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which held a favorable hearing on the measure in May.

Senator Cardin has urged the Committee to hold a vote on the bill soon, so that the full Senate can take action on the measure. On the House side, previous Tubman legislation has faltered and will have to be re-introduced.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s governor and other officials are moving forward with efforts to honor Tubman.

In August, the state received a federal grant to build the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on the Eastern Shore, a year-round exhibit exploring the heroine’s birthplace, early plantation life and successful efforts to help slaves secure freedom.

Born Araminta Ross on a rural plantation, Tubman escaped bondage in 1849, according to the biography Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. Author Kate Clifford Larson notes that Tubman later made an estimated 13 trips back to Maryland and led about 70 family and friends to freedom.

The region where Tubman lived will form the basis of the state visitor’s center. The facility also will provide information about the federally-designated Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which winds from Maryland north to Ontario, Canada.

Groundbreaking is expected next year, with the center scheduled for completion in 2010 — 100 years after Tubman’s death.

Once completed, officials say visitation to the park is expected to draw some 200,000 tourists a year, with anticipated long-term economic impact of $20 million annually.

“We’re looking forward to the center, which will add to the great tourism and culture of Dorchester County,” said Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization, a Maryland-based group which has worked at the grassroots level to bring this project to fruition. “The story of Harriet Tubman is an international story about freedom, which is one of the most important words in our vocabulary right now.”

While the push for national parks to honor Tubman remains uncertain — especially in light of the economy — her supporters remain optimistic.

“Harriet Tubman lived the principles of freedom and liberty and she shared that freedom with others,” said Cardin. “These two parks will make it possible for Marylanders and the entire nation to trace her life’s work and remember all that she was able to accomplish.”

“Those we met with in Congress were receptive,” adds Henry. “And we won’t give up until we’re witness to history.”