Why reopened Sennett residential facility is named for Harriet Tubman
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Why reopened Sennett residential facility is named for Harriet Tubman


A group of local officials visit the vacant Harriet Tubman Residential Center in 2012. 

After a seven-year hiatus, the Harriet Tubman Residential Center in Sennett reopened last week. The state plans to use the facility now that the "Raise the Age" law, which will increase the age of criminal responsibility in New York over the next two years, is in effect. 

A question has emerged since The Citizen reported on the building's reopening: Why does a detention center bear the name of the civil rights icon and former slave? 

One reader on Facebook called this use of Tubman's name "disgusting." A Twitter user questioned why the abolitionist's name would appear on signage for a facility that is essentially a youth prison. 

While the center is opening with a new use, the name is not changing. Before it closed in 2011, it was known as the Harriet Tubman Residential Center. And, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services, the name was in place since the mid-1990s. 

Before the facility was named in honor of Tubman, it was known as the Cayuga Residential Center. Monica Mahaffey, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services, explained that because the center houses girls, the agency wanted to emphasize women role models and women's history. 

Tubman, an American icon and former Auburn resident, was an obvious choice. 

The Office of Children and Family Services petitioned Tubman descendants to use the abolitionist's name for the facility. Pauline Copes Johnson, an Auburn resident and Tubman's great-great-grandniece, recalled signing documents allowing the state to recognize Tubman by naming the Sennett facility in her honor. 

The agency described the name, Harriet Tubman Residential Center, as an "inspiration to the girls who are placed there." 

Copes Johnson wasn't aware that the facility reopened after its 2011 closure. She also wasn't aware of its new use. 

Before the facility shuttered seven years ago, it was a juvenile justice center for girls ages 11 to 17. Now, it will be used to house 25 16- and 17-year-old girls who commit misdemeanor and felony crimes. A 12-foot-tall fence topped with razor wire surrounds the center, which will have nearly 100 employees. 

Karen Hill, president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, said her organization wasn't consulted on the naming of the facility. However, she urged the state and other entities that use Tubman's name to consider the abolitionist's core values: faith, freedom, family, community, self-determination, justice and equality. 

"I would hope those values would be embodied in whomever, in the public space, would want to use her name," Hill said. 

Copes Johnson is encouraged about the reuse of the facility after it was closed for seven years. The town of Sennett considered using it for a community center and park. Victory Sports Medicine in Skaneateles proposed acquiring the property and transforming it into an athletic complex. 

Neither of those plans came to fruition. And then last year, the state announced it would reopen the Sennett facility once the Raise the Age law took effect. 

Copes Johnson said she supports Raise the Age, which aims to rehabilitate young offenders and remove them from adult facilities. 

"I'm for them putting the young people at (the Harriet Tubman Residential Center) and not put them in jail or prison with the hardened criminals," she continued. "I think it's a very nice gesture." 

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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