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Tubman national park in Auburn: 'An evolution' in 2018 for 2-year-old landmark

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Harriet Tubman Park

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

Nearly two years after the formal establishment of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, tremendous progress has been made at the two main properties that are part of the landmark. 

Over the summer, a pair of rangers were temporarily assigned to the abolitionist's former South Street property. The rangers help bolster the visitor experience at the site, especially during the Harriet Tubman Home's busiest months. 

There have been other developments over the past few months. In separate interviews with The Citizen, National Park Service project lead Frank Barrows and Harriet Tubman Home President Karen Hill provided updates on the park's progress and what more needs to be done to have a full-fledged national park in Cayuga County. 

'Most progress is on Parker Street'

The National Park Service, which acquired the Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Parker Street, continues to rehabilitate the church and parsonage. Most of the work has focused on the parsonage. Barrows said window frames and sashes have been repaired and reinstalled. The windows will be repainted using colors from samples taken and analyzed by researchers who authored the church's historic structure report. 

A shop has been set up in the church's basement to allow the crew to continue its work through the winter. 

The park service also awarded a contract in September to replace the parsonage's roof shingles, rebuild the chimney, replacing the siding, repairing the siding on both gables, rebuild the back porch and priming and painting the exterior of the house. Landscaping, foundation repair and a new gutter system round out the project's components. 

The contractor is about 70 percent complete with the project, Barrows said. They have concluded their work for the winter, but will resume in the spring. There will be a meeting with designers in January to get plans for finishing the work remaining on the contract. 

Other developments

Two important reports — the cultural landscape and historic structure reports — are being finalized, according to Barrows. Final drafts for both reports have been completed and are being reviewed. 

The historic structure report will help with the ongoing restoration of the Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. 

After the rangers assigned to the Tubman Home finished their temporary assignment in September, the National Park Service has continued to support operations at the landmark. Rangers are present for tours every Tuesday and Thursday. Barrows said the plan is to bring back rangers in late spring or early summer for another seasonal assignment. 

With the opening of the Equal Rights Heritage Center in Auburn, a special assignment ranger has been working at the downtown Auburn facility. Barrows explained that the agency is focused on connecting visitors to the Tubman-related resources in Auburn and the surrounding areas. 

"We'll continue to explore the many ways we can contribute to the efforts," he said. 

Barrows also revealed plans to hire the first permanent ranger for the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in 2019. 

For now, nearby national parks continue to provide assistance. Barrows described it as "coparenting," with the staffs at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome and the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls supporting operations at the Tubman park. 

Barrows remains project lead

Barrows has a new job within the National Park Service, but it won't affect his status as the project lead of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park.

He is now based in Philadelphia at the agency's Northeast regional office. He left his post as superintendent at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome to become the program manager for visitor experience and community engagement for the region, which covers more than 85 parks from Virginia to Maine. 

Barrows' responsibilities include providing guidance on visitor experiences, planning, data analysis and youth and volunteer program management. 

While he has a new position, he will continue to serve as project lead for the Tubman park. 

Hill expressed happiness that Barrows will remain project lead. 

"In many ways, it's now easier for us to communicate and interact," she said. 

Events in 2019

Hill and the Harriet Tubman Home are planning a few events in 2019. The development of the program for the annual Tubman pilgrimage is underway, and there are plans to hold another Harriet Tubman Freedom Music Festival. 

In an interview, Hill said she expects the pilgrimage will be "incredibly dynamic" next year. 

"All of Auburn really needs to show up," she added. "I think that's very important." 

Hill is also planning to bring "big people" to central New York. She is a member of the federal Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission. She said the commission is committed to holding one of its meetings at the Tubman park. 

"We're beginning to be involved in efforts that will be able to tell Tubman's story more fully in the realm of suffrage with the 100th anniversary coming up in 2020," she said. "There will be a lot to share." 

Legal paperwork

The review process continues as the Harriet Tubman Home and National Park Service determine how their partnership will proceed. Hill said there aren't any specific issues holding up the agreement, but explained that the National Park Service moved from an implementation agreement to a cooperation agreement. Within the cooperation agreement, she said, is the execution of a preservation conservation easement. 

The easement is necessary for the Harriet Tubman Home and National Park Service to jointly manage the South Street property. The agreements are important because the documents spell out the roles of each party. 

"That's something that we've always anticipated," Hill said. "We didn't think that would need to happen first."

Earlier this year, Barrows and Hill expressed optimism that the legal agreements would be finished by the end of the federal fiscal year in September. Three months later, Hill now hopes the paperwork will be finished by mid-2019. 

Hill described the situation as a "legal back-and-forth" between the Tubman Home and the Park Service. Barrows confirmed that the paperwork is still in the legal review process. 

"We're just trying to make it all happen," Hill said. "These things take time." 

Looking back on 2018

There was a lot to be excited about this year. Visitation, especially over the summer months, was strong. The presence of the park rangers, albeit temporarily, strengthened the visitor experience. 

"It gave us a peek of what's possible in terms of our presence and how we can best bring the story of Harriet Tubman to life for the community as well as for the visitors that will visit from all over the globe," Barrows said. "Having the boots on the ground was a major accomplishment for the startup efforts in the park." 

Hill agreed that the visitor experience was great. The Harriet Tubman Home received feedback online and in letters from visitors. Some even made small donations to support the Tubman Home. 

The presence of the park rangers, she said, is a must. 

"It was great the way (Harriet Tubman Home) personnel and park personnel could work collaboratively," she said. "The people on the ground are amazing. They have been nothing short of amazing." 

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