Tributes to hero of Underground Railroad may finally surface

As President Obama and the nation's lawmakers tackle hot-button issues like health care reform, momentum is quietly building to honor an American heroine who instituted her own brand of reform and change: Harriet Tubman...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As President Obama and the nation’s lawmakers tackle hot-button issues like health care reform, momentum is quietly building to honor an American heroine who instituted her own brand of reform and change: Harriet Tubman.

Legislation is once again before Congress to create national parks that would commemorate Tubman, who famously escaped slavery and made frequent trips back to free others as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

Recently, a Senate subcommittee on national parks heard testimony on a bill that would authorize $11 million in grants to help create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, plus a state park and visitor’s center, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was there where Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822. A second site, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park would be built in Auburn, New York, where Tubman spent her final years and died in 1913.

The sites would be the first in the National Park System (NPS) to specifically honor Tubman, known as the “Moses” of her people. According to Katherine H. Stevenson, an NPS deputy director who testified in favor of the legislation, Tubman’s life and contributions “suggest that nearly 100 years after her death, the time for this abundantly deserved honor has finally arrived.”

Historian Kate Clifford Larson authored the 2003 biography, ‘Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,’ which shed new details on Tubman’s life – including nearly 30 years in bondage, her marriage to a free black man, John Tubman, and her fervent desire to be free.

“She ran away Sept. 17, 1849,” said Larson, a professor at Simmons College in Boston. “Her runaway ad that was placed in a newspaper by her enslaver, Eliza Brodess, was discovered in January 2003 in a Dumpster” on the Eastern Shore.

Tubman’s first escape didn’t work out quite as planned. (Two of her brothers were with her then, and apparently, when they decided to return to their families, she accompanied them back, the author says.) But Tubman eventually made her way north to Philadelphia – and to freedom. Using the Underground Railroad network of abolitionists and safe houses, she returned to Maryland over a decade or so to liberate other slaves, including her elderly parents.

A point of contention in Larson’s book involves the number of slaves Tubman helped lead to freedom.

“We have done tremendous research on her rescue missions, her Underground Railroad activities,” said Larson. “And we have discovered that she actually returned to Maryland to bring away about 70 friends and family members [in 19 trips], not 300 people.”

Larson noted that Tubman reportedly gave instructions to dozens of slaves, which helped countless others escape bondage, too. While the exact numbers are lost to history, Larson praised what she calls Tubman’s “extraordinary courage.”

So does Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization, which operates a museum devoted to Tubman in Cambridge, Maryland. For decades, the group has pushed at the grassroots level to preserve Tubman’s legacy, as have others.

“One of Harriet’s quotes was, ‘I have the right to two things, and that’s liberty or death,’” said Pinder. “If she was found out doing the work that she did, her punishment may have been death.”

Despite such support for Tubman, the move to honor her has taken some time. The National Park Service was authorized by Congress to study the feasibility of the park back in 1999; they launched their study in 2000, received public input, and released a favorable study in January of this year —nearly a decade later.

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, an avid Tubman supporter, first introduced the park bill in August 2008. It was co-sponsored by fellow Marylander, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Chuck Schumer and then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. But Congress adjourned before acting on the bill, so the legislation was re-introduced in January.

The recent hearing is a step towards a vote on the bill, which one Senate staffer said could possibly happen after the August recess. From that point, the Tubman bill would make its way through the often protracted legislative process. While there’s no firm timetable for completion of the parks, some Tubman supporters have said they hope they might open in time for the 100th anniversary of her death on March 10, 2013.