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LOCAL HISTORY

'It's Harriet Tubman!': National park in Auburn hires first permanent ranger

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Harriet Tubman Park

Ranger Kimberly Szewczyk gives a history lesson in September 2018 to visitors on a bus tour about the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn.

AUBURN — The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park didn't need to look far for its first full-time employee. 

More than two years after the formal establishment of the park in Cayuga County, Kim Szewczyk has been hired as a permanent park ranger. Her first day on the job was Monday, March 3. 

Szewczyk previously served as the chief of interpretation and education at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. For nearly two years, she has assisted at the Tubman park and represented the National Park Service at events in the Auburn area. 

When the National Park Service created the full-time position at the Tubman park, Szewczyk was eager to apply. 

"It's Harriet Tubman!" she said during an interview at the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center Friday. "Being able to tell the story of a woman who did so many different things in her life and made such an impact on society. Her legacy continues to this day. It's just an amazing opportunity to be honored with caring for that legacy and carrying it forward." 

A 17-year veteran of the National Park Service, Szewczyk began as a seasonal ranger at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. She's held other positions throughout her career, including stints as a business management specialist at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and the chief of interpretation at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome. 

Szewczyk also worked in the National Park Service's land resources division, which determines the physical property needed for a unit of the national park system. In that role, she was part of the team that traveled to the Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The visit was the first phase of the process to establish a national memorial. 

When she first visited the crash site, it was still a crime scene and a coroner was present. She made several return trips, visiting the site each month for nearly three years. To determine how to transform the site into a memorial, they consulted with the families of the Flight 93 passengers and community residents. The goal was to ensure there wasn't a negative impact on the surrounding area. 

After years of planning, the Flight 93 National Memorial opened in 2011. 

Szewczyk's prior experience with the land resources division will be an asset as she begins her new role at the Tubman park. The Cayuga County landmark is still a work-in-progress. While the National Park Service acquired the Thompson Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church and parsonage on Parker Street, the agency and Harriet Tubman Home, Inc, are finalizing an agreement to jointly manage the South Street property. 

The South Street site consists of Tubman's former brick residence, the Home for the Aged she established and a visitor center. In 2018, nearly 6,000 people visited the property in July and August — two of the busiest months for the park. 

Szewczyk has ideas for programming and is working with Frank Barrows, the Tubman park's project lead, to develop plans. Her main objective, though, will be building capacity for the Harriet Tubman Home. 

"As soon as it became a national park, then there's a lot more people seeing it," she said. "It's right on the NPS.gov website, so there's certain expectations of what visitors are going to expect when they come to the national park." 

Karen Hill, president and CEO of Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., is pleased Szewczyk has been hired as the park's first permanent ranger. But she highlighted the need for more resources, especially funding, to support the Harriet Tubman Home. 

One of the challenges, she explained, is that when park rangers are present at the site there is no admission fee. When non-National Park Service staff lead tours, admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for seniors (ages 65 and up) and $2 for children ages 6 to 17. 

"We lose operational support money by providing the public a park ranger," Hill said, adding that revenue for the nonprofit decreased despite an increase in visitation last year. 

The revenue matter likely won't be resolved until Harriet Tubman Home, Inc., and the National Park Service finalize the cooperation agreement and conservation and preservation easements to jointly manage the property. Other national parks charge an entrance fee for visitors. According to the National Park Service's website, visitors must pay to enter 112 parks, national monuments and other sites in the system. 

For now, though, the focus is on how to best utilize Szewczyk's expertise. 

"She brings a lot of experience into the position and, of course, her most relevant experience has been over the last almost two years helping with the startup at the park," Barrows said. 

Szewczyk wants to share Tubman's Auburn story with visitors. What she has found is that many who come to the park know of the American icon's early years as a slave, her role in the Underground Railroad and her Civil War service. However, they know little, if anything, about Tubman's life in New York. 

While Szewczyk has a familiarity with Tubman's life, her education continues. Her studies include reading books about slavery and Reconstruction. 

"To understand Harriet Tubman, we do have to understand all of this history," she said. "We have to understand lynching, how the media portrayed black Americans, what was Jim Crow, the civil rights movement. It doesn't stop in 1913 when Harriet Tubman passes. She's part of that continuum of history we need to understand." 

An important part of Tubman's life in Auburn is her relationship with the Sewards, who sold her the land where she built a house and the Home for the Aged. Szewczyk said she's working closely with the Seward House Museum because "you cannot separate the Seward-Tubman story." 

The collaboration with the Seward House Museum is one component of Szewczyk's community outreach. She has led the Reading Ranger program at Auburn elementary schools and the Booker T. Washington Community Center. The National Park Service is working with the Auburn Historic and Cultural Sites Commission on its Passport to History program. Fourth-graders who complete the program will receive an Every Kid in a Park certificate. The document, provided by the National Park Service, grants the student and their family free admission to national parks for one year. 

The National Park Service also created an archaeological program that allows students to conduct their own miniature dig. The program was introduced at the Booker T. Washington Community Center's camp last year and was inspired by the archaeological findings at the Tubman property. 

Until the busy tourism season begins, Szewczyk will lead tours at 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the Harriet Tubman Home. Over the summer, the National Park Service plans to have two temporary rangers assigned to the park to assist Szewczyk. 

The agency brought in two rangers from other parks last year for a temporary assignment at the Tubman property. 

The Tubman park will continue to receive support from nearby parks. Barrows said Jessica Bowes, a ranger at Fort Stanwix who was part of the temporary detail in 2018, provides assistance occasionally. Staff from other parks help with maintenance and other tasks. 

After the Tubman park's formal establishment in 2017, help from other parks was the extent of the National Park Service's presence in Auburn. Now, with Szewczyk's hiring, the park has its own ranger. 

"She will continue to build relationships and represent the National Park Service as we work with community partners to bring the story of Harriet Tubman to life for thousands of visitors that we're seeing every year," Barrows said. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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