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AUBURN — Deanna Stanford Walz, a relative of iconic abolitionist former Auburn resident Harriet Tubman, said that although she believes the Auburn area has embraced her ancestor more in recent years, it wasn't always that way.

Stanford Walz, a member of the Harriet Tubman Boosters, which educates people about Tubman, recalled a vehement protest from Auburn High School students over a proposal in the '90s to name the school after Tubman. She said she was disappointed and confused by the controversy, as she attended the school at the time. Gazing at the people around for an event honoring Tubman in Auburn Saturday, however, Stanford Walz said she believes there is now  increased awareness of her family member's life.

A crowd gathered at the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center on South Street for the fourth annual Strawberry Stroll for Harriet Tubman. The event was originally going to feature a walk from the center to Tubman's grave at Fort Hill Cemetery, but the walk was canceled, and the program moved indoors, due to the extreme heat. Slices of strawberry shortcake were available, as strawberries were a favorite treat of Tubman's.

Stanford Walz, granddaughter of Pauline Copes Johnson, Tubman's great-great-grandniece, said she was happy to see so many people at the event.

"I feel a sense of pride for my family because people are really understanding our family's contribution to history," Stanford Walz said.

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The event featured performances by Genesee Elementary School's Harriet Tubman Singers, who sang original songs about Tubman's life with folk duo Magpie, made up of Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner. Leonino and Artzner have been penning tunes in honor of Tubman with fourth-grade students at the school for several years. Audience members were dancing and singing along to the songs. The event also included performances by the Auburn Community Choir.

One of the people who knew many of the Tubman songs was Kimberly Szewczyk, the ranger of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. She said she enjoyed the event and that Auburn "blows me away," as she believes the city houses several groups that carry on Tubman's mission of justice, equality and love, such as the boosters, Celebrate! Diverse Auburn and Auburn Public Theater.

"I feel invigorated and just proud to be a part of it," she said.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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