Meet Bob McIntosh. He is the associate director of the northeast region for the National Park Service. For the past several years, he has been hosting town hall meetings in Maryland and New York to solicit feedback from the general public, historians, preservationists, African American community leaders, and private property owners – all focused on the best way to protect a one-of-a-kind American story that many of us have been learning about since grade school.
"I grew up like a neglected weed…ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it." Those are Harriet Tubman's own words describing her childhood in Maryland's Dorchester County, where she was born into slavery around 1820. Brave and tenacious, Tubman was a natural leader who not only inspired her fellow slaves to dream in real terms about their freedom, but would stop at nothing to protect them. In one famous confrontation, a teenage Tubman threw herself in front of another field worker as a human shield against an angry overseer. The field worker escaped unscathed, but Tubman suffered a serious blow to the head that would haunt her with hallucination spells for the rest of her life.
In 1849, rumor spread that Tubman and several others from her plantation were soon to be sold. The chilling news ignited the courageous spirit that would cement Tubman's place in our history books: "I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other." The decision was made: Tubman would escape.
With her eyes set on the state line of Pennsylvania, Tubman followed the North Star on what could be considered the most dramatic protest against human bondage in our country's history – the Underground Railroad. A clandestine network of homes (called "stations" or "depots") and the abolitionists (called "stationmasters") who owned them, the well-organized system moved hundreds of slaves northward each year, peaking between 1830 and 1865. The trail brought Tubman to her freedom, but she would go on to make an additional 19 trips to and from Maryland, escorting an estimated 300 slaves to Pennsylvania and beyond as the Underground Railroad's most celebrated "conductor."
If this seems like a lot of background information for a story about a National Park Service project, reconsider the subject matter with a map in mind; Tubman's journey started in Maryland, and through her work as an abolitionist and later as a suffragist, her legacy is scattered like sacred breadcrumbs on a trail that spans our country and crosses its border into Canada. For example, among the many historically significant stops she made in her time, you'll find Auburn, New York. Some 400 miles away from her Dorchester County birthplace in Maryland, this is where Tubman established the first home for poor, elderly African Americans, served as a nurse and eventually retired from a lifetime career of humanitarianism.
It is between these two places on the map that the task of weaving together a story as multidimensional as it is geographically diverse became a reality for McIntosh, his colleagues at the National Park Service and so many others.
In 2000, Congress directed the Secretary of the Interior to evaluate the potential to establish a unit of the national park system or a national heritage area that would commemorate Tubman-associated sites, seven of which were already indentified between Maryland and New York. The end product would be a special resource study evaluating the options, appropriateness, and costs for commemorating historic places integral to Tubman's extraordinary journey through official designations to the system.
"Harriet Tubman's story is celebrated globally, so we had to find the locations here in America where we could continue to tell it best," McIntosh said. "We looked at properties from Canada all the way down to Florida, where she had once traveled in her remarkable lifetime. Ultimately, New York and Maryland came back as the best places to focus on her legacy. It is in Auburn that you will find the Tubman property, which has been owned and preserved by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for 100 years."
Released in late 2008 nearly a decade after it was commissioned, the special resource study is the culmination of years of research by McIntosh and his peers, work that not only brought him to the places where Tubman made her indelible mark, but to community centers where everyone had something to say about the project.
"The public meetings were always well attended," McIntosh said. "At any of the eight that were held in 2008 between New York and Maryland, you would always find a good cross section of interested parties, including members of the African American community, private property owners, farmers, historians, the heritage tourism community, and state and local officials."
These town halls were just one component of a 30-day procedure to solicit public comments on the study, which ultimately recommended that the Auburn resources – including the Tubman home and the Home for the Aged – be designated a national historical park, while 6,750 acres spanning Maryland's Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties would be designated as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. Among two other visions, this concept was found to be the environmentally preferred alternative that would be the most "effective and efficient" way to protect the nationally significant sites and landscapes associated with Tubman. McIntosh noted that over 200 statements were collected in meetings, over the Internet and through the mail during the public comment period, the vast majority of which were supportive of the study's recommendations.
"At the end of the day, establishing a national park is a political process," McIntosh said. "Without a doubt, the knowledge of the public's interest as well as the interests of state and local governments will be critical for Congress in making the final decision. The chosen alternative best protects and interprets the resources associated with Tubman's early life in Maryland and with her later life in Auburn, New York."
Despite a finalized study, the possibility for – and subsequent timing of – designations protecting Tubman's story is largely out of the hands of McIntosh and his colleagues. On January 12, 2009, the study's findings and public comments were approved by Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett. The fate of the project now falls to Congress, where the designation recommendations must make their way through the standard legislative process – a process that is rarely fast.
With years of research and input from preservationists and the public on the line on Capitol Hill, it is important to consider the role our government leaders play in protecting irreplaceable places that tell important stories like Tubman's.
Excerpted frequently in the records of our history like a sound byte would be replayed in the news of today, Tubman's most famous remarks describe her focus and work ethic on the Underground Railroad. In them she says, "I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger."
“The Harriet Tubman study demonstrates an example where historic events, cultural landscapes, ongoing agricultural and forestry land uses, fish and wildlife interests, and heritage tourism all have parallel goals,” McIntosh said. “Efforts should be taken across the country to recognize such places and to foster their preservation in this way.”