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Tubman park

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signs the document to formally establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn at a ceremony Tuesday in Washington.

Robert Harding, The Citizen

WASHINGTON — After nearly two decades of work, it's now official: Cayuga County is home to the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell formally established the park at ceremony Tuesday at the Department of the Interior's Washington headquarters. The park will consist of Tubman's residence in Fleming and the Home for the Aged in Auburn. Along with the South Street properties, the historic Thompson A.M.E. Zion Church and rectory on Parker Street will be part of the newly created park. 

Tubman, an abolitionist and civil rights icon, was born in Maryland, but spent the latter part of her life in Auburn. After she died in 1913, the properties she owned in Auburn were transferred to the A.M.E. Zion Church. 

The park is the 414th unit within the national park system. It's also, along with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland, the first national park honoring an African American woman. 

"Harriet Tubman's story is America's story," Jewell said. "She lived her principles: Strong faith in God, her love of family, a belief in the dignity for all humans and a vision for a better life for all people in this country. So what better place to tell her story than within America's storyteller, and that is the National Park Service." 

The ceremony featured a handful of speakers, including U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York and U.S. Rep. John Katko, whose district includes Cayuga County. 

Katko, R-Camillus said with the park's establishment, it's an exciting time for central New York. 

"It's a source of great pride," he said. "It's going to be a great source of pride moving forward." 

The formal establishment of the park was possible after the Harriet Tubman Home, the organization which oversees the Tubman properties on South Street, and the National Park Service finalized a land agreement. The deal was needed in order for the properties to be granted national park status. 

The land agreement calls for the Harriet Tubman Home and National Park Service to jointly manage the South Street properties. The National Park Service acquired the Parker Street church for $40,000, records show. 

Before the land deal was finalized, it was reviewed by the Department of Justice and approved by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Because it involved a non-profit organization in New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also had to sign off on the agreement. 

Schneiderman's office approved it late last year. 

With the land agreement finalized, the Harriet Tubman Home and federal officials, including Schumer, worked quickly to organize Tuesday's ceremony. 

The moment was significant for Schumer, who sponsored legislation to authorize a special resource study of the Tubman sites in Cayuga County. The study is necessary before any new sites are added to the national park system. 

After the study was completed, Schumer, D-N.Y., joined with then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton to introduce the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act in 2008. 

Six years after the bill was first introduced, it finally received congressional approval. The measure was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. 

"(Tubman) is a true American hero," Schumer said at Tuesday's ceremony. "Because she didn't just secure the blessings of liberty for herself, she risked her life to secure it for others and fought passionately to change her country to secure it for everyone. She gave of herself for others. That's what it means to be an American hero." 

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., echoed Schumer's comments. 

"It's a celebration for New York and for Auburn," she said. "But it's mostly a celebration of what's right in the world, and right conquering wrong." 

The ceremony also recognized the A.M.E. Zion Church's role in preserving the Tubman properties in New York. The church has been credited with ensuring that Tubman's legacy in Auburn wasn't forgotten. 

Several of the church's leaders, including Bishop Dennis Proctor, attended the ceremony. Proctor, who also serves as chairman of the Harriet Tubman Home organization, hailed the bipartisan cooperation that led to the bill's passage and the eventual establishment of the park. 

"(Tubman) was not only the 'Moses of her people,' but she was the Moses of a movement — a movement for freedom, a movement for justice and a movement for equality," he said. 

An opening date for the park hasn't been set. With its formal establishment, the next steps are to secure federal funding and prepare the sites for visitors. 

The Parker Street church and rectory will need significant renovations before the property opens to the public. Tubman's former residence on South Street also will require rehabilitation. 

The state also plans on playing a role in the opening of the park. When central New York won the 2015 Upstate Revitalization Initiative, a new visitors center for the park was included in the region's future plans. The construction of the facility will cost an estimated $30 million. 

For now, Tubman stakeholders are celebrating the achievement. While the formal establishment ceremony was held in Washington, the National Park Service is planning to hold an event in Auburn. That event will likely be held in the spring. 


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