Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist, civil rights icon and one of Auburn's most famous residents, could soon get a long-awaited honor.
Language to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland has been included by congressional leaders in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill which sets budgetary guidelines for the Department of Defense.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the NDAA this week, possibly Wednesday. The U.S. Senate will take up the measure next week. If the legislation is adopted, the Tubman national historical parks will be the first to honor an African American woman.
"It's been a real long journey, but a very worthwhile journey and an important journey, not just for Harriet Tubman, but for the city of Auburn and the people of the Finger Lakes region of central New York," Harriet Tubman Home executive director Karen Hill said Wednesday. "It's huge."
Laurel Ullyette, president of the Harriet Tubman Boosters Club, said the group was discouraged due to the possibility that the bill might not be passed before the end of the current Congress, which would force supporters to restart their efforts in the 114th Congress.
But now that the legislation is part of the NDAA bill, Ullyette said they are happy with the latest developments.
"We were so prepared that it was not going to make it this year," Ullyette said. "We just didn't think there was any possibility. Now that this has happened, it's just opened everything back up and we're just absolutely thrilled that this chance still remains for this Congress."
Under the provisions included in the NDAA agreement, the Auburn park would consist of Tubman's home, the Home for the Aged and the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church.
The Maryland park would include sites in three counties — Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot.
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland. She escaped from slavery and, using the Underground Railroad, helped free other slaves.
Later in her life, Tubman settled in Auburn. She lived in the city until her death in 1913.
The Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act was first introduced in 2008, but it did not advance through Congress. The bill was reintroduced in 2009 and again in 2011 in the Senate and 2012 in the House. Each time, the legislation never advanced to the floor of either house for a vote.
The bill picked up more momentum in the 113th Congress, which officially concludes at the beginning of January. U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei introduced the Tubman parks legislation in the House. Through his efforts, 101 cosponsors signed on in support of the bill, including the entire New York House delegation and the Congressional Black Caucus.
While a House subcommittee held a hearing on the Tubman parks bill, the measure advanced further in the Senate. The Senate bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and supported by New York U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources last year.
In July, the Senate passed the Tubman parks bill by unanimous consent. But there wasn't any indication that the House would act on the legislation before the end of the 113th Congress.
Maffei, D-Syracuse, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter in October to the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee urging them to include the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act in the NDAA.
Among other factors, Maffei cited Tubman's military service — she was a nurse and a spy for the Union Army in the Civil War — as one reason why the measure should be included in the NDAA bill.
"This provision in the National Defense Authorization Act is a huge victory for Auburn and all of central New York and brings us even closer to sending the bipartisan Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act to the president's desk," Maffei said in a statement.
"The creation of a national park in Auburn will preserve Harriet Tubman’s remarkable legacy and educate future generations of Americans about her important role in our country’s history, and it will grow our local economy by creating new jobs and attracting millions of tourism dollars to our region. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stand with us in passing the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act so that the president can sign this important legislation into law."
Gillibrand, D-N.Y, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Schumer, D-N.Y., also advocated for the legislation's inclusion in the NDAA. Both senators visited the Tubman Home and have long supported establishing a national park in Auburn to honor Tubman.
Now that the legislation is in the final NDAA agreement, Schumer said it's a "momentous milestone" for the Tubman park effort.
"All we need now is for this bill to pass both the House and the Senate, and then the request heads straight to the president's desk," Schumer said in a statement.
"I am urging my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress to vote for this bill and help us secure the recognition that Harriet Tubman, and those who have worked for years to maintain the Tubman House in Auburn, deserve."
Gillibrand said the park could serve as a great tribute to Tubman and her achievements.
"Harriet Tubman is a remarkable American hero who continues to inspire so many people today," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Her unwavering commitment to helping others while risking her own life in the long fight for freedom and equality has left an indelible legacy.
"This national historic park in Auburn would provide an important place where men and women of all backgrounds can come together and reflect on the significance of her life."
Like the Senate version of the Tubman bill, the provision in the NDAA includes a $24 million offset to cover the costs of implementing the measure. A portion of those funds will be used to establish the park in Auburn.
A Congressional Budget Office estimate released in 2013 said it would cost approximately $12 million to implement the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks Act. Most of the funding would be used in the first year, with minimal costs in future years.
The Tubman park in Auburn could have a significant impact on the local economy, according to estimates provided by the Cayuga County Office of Tourism. The park would help create 70 new jobs, annual tourism spending would increase by $3.12 million and as many as 20,000 people will visit the park each year.