by Carolyn Evans-Dean
As the nation prepares to gather in Washington DC for the official unveiling of the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, a controversy is brewing over how to commemorate the life of another beloved African American figure. The State of Maryland recently revealed plans to create a $21 million park in Cambridge to honor the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman. A state park would seem to be an appropriate way to commemorate her life and yet, there is growing disagreement as to the location and the amount of funding that the project has received.
Tubman, best known for leading countless black slaves out of bondage to the freedom that was to be found in the northern states and Canada, was often referred to as ‘the Moses of her people.’ Among her lesser known accomplishments were her successes as a Union Army spy and her philanthropic endeavors to create a home for aged and indigent former slaves in Auburn, NY.
.While Harriet Tubman was born on a farm in Dorchester County Maryland, she eventually escaped bondage in 1849 and made her way to the north. Over the years she returned repeatedly to Maryland bringing out family members and many others, earning the nickname of “Moses”.
There are few historical artifacts and no structures remaining from Tubman’s life in the state of Maryland. Likely due to the fact that slaves weren’t allowed much in the way of possessions or property. The memorial park would seek to bring these places back to life by creating a trail for future generations to follow, keeping the Tubman legacy alive. This idea greatly pleases Valerie Manokey of Cambridge MD. The 75 year old is one of Harriet Tubman’s descendents and was quoted as saying, ‘It is awesome. It’s like something inside you that was growing and you knew someone would see the significance and it would blossom and now you see the buds on the tree. I pray that I’ll be here to see it.’ But what of Harriet Tubman’s life in New York?
Five hundred miles away in the quiet city of Auburn NY, Tubman House and Home sits on land that is steeped in history. The Central New York area had long been a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement. Harriet Tubman purchased her home and land from William Seward. At that time, he was a former State Senator and Governor of New York. As Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, Seward later gained fame for the purchase of the vast expanse of land that is now known as Alaska. This purchase increased the size of the United States by approximately one-third.
It was Auburn that Tubman called home during the last fifty years of her life and she settled her aged parents and other family members there. In 1903, she signed her property over to the care of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where it has remained for more than one hundred years. Upon her death in 1913, she was eulogized in the Thompson African Methodist Episcopal Church and buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery, both of which are located in Auburn. One year after her death, the city of Auburn placed a memorial tablet at the Cayuga County Courthouse to honor the Tubman legacy.
The Tubman House and Home is a museum that receives little federal funding. According to New York State Senator Chuck Schumer, the site received only $11,750 in 2004. That pales in comparison to the $8.5 million that the Maryland project is slated to receive from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Program, and the disparity has rankled some folks in New York. Many feel that it is unfair to overlook a site that has so much actual Tubman lore and infrastructure in favor of creating a new site with modern or replica structures to honor one of America’s best known historical figures.
Over the years, many politicians and dignitaries have visited the Tubman House and Home to learn about the legacy of a woman called Moses. The project in Maryland has some people in New York wondering if their connection and familial relationships to Harriet Tubman will be overshadowed by a big budget project, located in a state where plantation owners once offered a reward of $40,000 for the capture of America’s most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad.