On the 104th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's death, the newest unit of Maryland's state park system will be dedicated in the abolitionist's honor.
The opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, will be celebrated at a ceremony Friday, March 10. The 17-acre park, which features a $21 million visitor center, will open to the public Saturday, March 11.
The park will provide historical information on Tubman's early life. She was born into slavery in Maryland and spent her childhood and a portion of her adult years there. She escaped from slavery in 1849, but returned to Maryland to lead family and friends to freedom.
For those involved with the park, it was a labor of love that lasted more than a decade. According to Marci Ross of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development, former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis once called the park a "national model" of partnership between federal, state and local governments.
U.S. senators from Maryland and New York advocated for legislation to study whether Tubman sites in both states should be given national park status. The bill was a precursor to a measure that established national historical parks in Auburn and on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
In the early 2000s, Maryland officials took advantage of the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. This led to more conversations between local and state officials in Maryland about what could be done while they waited for the special resource study to be conducted.
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Maryland had a scenic highway program which was initially named the Underground Railroad Trail. It was later renamed the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. There was more discussion after that change about how the state could share Tubman's story — and the history of the Underground Railroad — on the Eastern Shore.
Ross credits Dorchester County leaders for pushing to honor Tubman. She said for three decades they attempted to recognize the abolitionist in some way. With the various federal and state programs in place, the idea for a state park was born.
"Where we wanted to be ultimately is pretty much where we're going to be with the visitor center opening March 10," Ross said.
Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, the author of "Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero," a biography of Tubman's life, was working on her dissertation when she started making several trips to Maryland during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2001, she was hired by the National Park Service to consult on the special resource study. During that time, Maryland was exploring ways to celebrate Tubman apart from the national park effort.
With Larson's help, the state developed the byway and identified sites related to Tubman's life in slavery and her Underground Railroad missions. The byway was unveiled on March 10, 2013 — the same day officials broke ground on the state park.
The work on the byway led to the decision to establish a state park in Maryland. Larson recalled that the state park concept was first floated in 2005.
Larson served as a historical consultant on the project. The development of the park was a "very long process," she said in an interview last week. But she credited the state with having the motivation to achieve the goal.
"The exhibits are going to be fantastic and I'm just thrilled to have been lucky enough to be part of it," Larson said.
NATIONAL PARK, MONUMENT
The state park won't be located too far from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland. The park, which will encompass land in Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties, was created after President Barack Obama signed legislation in late 2014.
It's also close to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which was also established by Obama. The monument consists of 11,750 acres in Dorchester County. Much of the site is within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The national park isn't yet open to the public. But the National Park Service will jointly operate the visitor center at the state park with Maryland Park Service. The agencies will also share office space in the state park's administration building.
"It's a partnership park," said Dana Paterra, manager of the Tubman state park.
For Maryland, the national monument designation was significant. When it was established in 2013, there was uncertainty surrounding the legislation to create the Tubman national historical parks in Maryland and New York. That uncertainty led to the creation of the "Harriet on the Hill" lobbying day spearheaded by leaders from both states.
Ross said Maryland felt it was necessary to do more, in part, because of a difference in resources compared to that of New York's, which has Tubman's former residence and the Home for the Aged in Auburn.
"What they need and how they need to be managed are so different from Maryland, which is why you'll find that there's been two very different paths to get to that national park designation," she said.
Another reason may have been some impatience on Maryland's part. Ross said the money was ready to fund the construction of the visitor center and they were advancing those plans.
"We have money being invested in interpreting this story beyond the boundaries of where the visitor center is going to be," she said. "We have people that are relying on this from a quality of life and an economic development standpoint. We cannot wait for Congress to act."
Once the national monument was established and Maryland broke ground on the $21 million center, the state was off and running. And that's when former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, according to Ross, declared that the effort in Maryland was a "national model of partnership between local, county, state and federal partners to share American history and American culture."
Larson lauded Maryland for sticking with the state park project. The state, she said, understood the new economic climate — that funding for national parks wasn't going to increase and the state would have to shoulder much of the burden.
"This is the first kind of state park for a person like this for them, and I think partly because the community so desperately wanted it," she said. "There were some people in Maryland government that were so passionate about Tubman. The commitment just never wavered."
The park will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, seven days a week. Admission is free.
The state park's visitor center will be the main attraction. Exhibits, an information desk, research library and store will be housed inside the center.
The exhibits, which were developed with Larson's assistance, will focus on Tubman's early years, the role of family and religion in her life and her efforts to lead slaves to freedom.
Tubman's role in the Combahee River raids is also mentioned in the exhibits. So, too, is Auburn, where she spent the latter part of her life.
The park also features a walking path that takes visitors through a legacy garden. And a 2,600-square-foot picnic pavilion will be available for larger groups.
"Our idea is to give visitors a meaningful experience and a connection to Tubman's life," said Angela Crenshaw of the Maryland Park Service.
The research library at the center, Crenshaw said, will have resources for those who wish to study Tubman's life and the Underground Railroad.
The facts and information for the exhibits mostly came from Larson's book. A working group also contributed to the decision-making process on what should be featured in the exhibits.
Paterra said the working group held monthly conference calls for the last decade.
"This has been a labor of love for many for a long time," she said.
Larson remembered that when the state first began talking about the park, there were several community meetings. One of the takeaways from those meetings was a desire to not only tell the story about Tubman's life as a slave, but to "portray the truth about slavery" in the upper South and in Maryland.
Most of the exhibits, Larson said, will focus on various points in Tubman's life as an enslaved child and a young woman.
"They didn't want us to sugarcoat it," Larson said. "They wanted the truth."
Crenshaw said she's humbled to have been a part of the project. Paterra, who's been involved with the development of the park over the last 2 1/2 years, thinks it will resonate with Marylanders.
"She came back to Maryland for love of family," Paterra said of Tubman. "She really does speak to us all for multiple reasons."
For Ross, the long road to the opening of the state park is nothing short of remarkable. She said the community demanded that the state, through the park, tells Tubman's story.
Prior to joining state government, Ross worked in the hospitality industry. The experience with the park is unlike anything she's ever seen.
"I cannot name another initiative anywhere in the country where a state has come together to help make sure that what people have asked for comes to fruition," she said. "For me, it has been absolutely remarkable."
What's even more impressive, Ross says, is that the state park project survived through multiple administrations at the federal, state and local levels.
When the state park project broke ground in 2013, Maryland's governor was Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. The state's current governor, Republican Larry Hogan, will officially dedicate the park Friday.
"When people hear (Tubman's) name and they think about the Underground Railroad, they truly can put their differences aside and come together and unify because it is such a remarkable story," Ross said. "It feels amazing. I can't wait for the next chapter."