By Allison Goldstein for Capital News Service
Maryland's lawmakers urged Congress Wednesday to pass legislation to create two national parks honoring the legacy of Underground Railroad leader Harriet Ross Tubman.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, and Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, joined senators from New York and leaders from national civil rights organizations in calling for immediate congressional action on the Harriet Tubman National Parks Act. The act would establish historic parks in Maryland and New York to commemorate the freedom fighter one century after her death.
“We owe it to Harriet to tell this story, but we owe it to this generation and the next generation so they know the story, that each and every one of us in our own way must also work and walk freedom’s trail,” Mikulski said at a news conference Wednesday.
The legislation calls for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park to be located in Maryland's Eastern Shore where Tubman was born, escaped slavery and later returned to lead other African-Americans to freedom.
Some sites set to become part of the historic park include the Anthony Thompson Plantation where Tubman was likely born and the Poplar Neck Plantation where she led many Underground Railroad missions.
A second park in Auburn, N.Y., would include the sites where Tubman spent her later years as a women’s suffrage activist and caretaker for the elderly.
Mikulski seized on momentum from Black History Month and events surrounding the Harriet Tubman Centennial.
“I pledge to you as the full chair of the Appropriations Committee, if we get it authorized this year, I'll put it in the federal budget,” she said of the bill.
Cardin later added that the Tubman National Park—the first to honor an African-American woman—is long overdue.
“It will be incredibly valuable as a learning tool but also as an economic tool,” he said.
The Maryland project will cost $21 million, but is expected to increase tourism and job growth for Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties with an estimated 75,000 visitors annually, according to the Maryland Office of Tourism.
Sarbanes shared memories of his father, former Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, telling Harriet Tubman’s story during childhood trips through Cambridge, Md.
“If anybody deserves that kind of unique response to her legacy it's Harriet Tubman,” he said.
Several national civil rights organizations also attended to show support for the bill including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women and the National Council of Negro Women.
Allendra Letsome, Maryland native and membership vice president of NOW, spoke of the historic park legislation in conjunction with her organization’s several-year effort to replace the Capitol building’s statue of Maryland legislator John Hanson with a statue of Tubman. Tubman’s statue would be the first of an African-American woman in Statuary Hall.
"We need to send a message to our young people that you can do great things, you can change the course of history," Letsome said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY., broke from his written speech to add, “There are some who say, well, this costs money. It costs such a small amount of money. Many on the other side opposed this bill because it costs a little bit of money. To preserve our legacy, to preserve our history, to give lessons to the children, this one... just in terms of bang for the buck would be huge, so let’s not let that issue stand in the way of this 100th anniversary year.”