CAMBRIDGE — Maryland is revisiting the history of Harriet Tubman following Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to dedicate 2022 to the renowned Underground Railroad abductor, which many scholars say is an opportunity to inspire young people.
“When it comes to the education curriculum, African American history is still marginalized,” said Chanel Compton, executive director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis. “It’s just as integral as math and science, and we’re really not there yet.”
According to a national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in February, 27% of U.S. adults reported learning a “full and accurate account of the role of African Americans in the United States,” in school, compared with 66% who said their teachings “fell short” when it came to African American studies.
The U.S. has for decades erased the history of marginalized communities via inaccurate or inadequate education, but advocates’ efforts to preserve their past have persisted.
For years, historically Black colleges and universities, civil rights activists and African American museums have promoted their stories and contributions to American history, Compton said, “and with each new generation we’re building on that momentum.”
The Banneker-Douglass Museum, has seen an uptick in public engagement in person and online, which Compton credits to Hogan’s March proclamation that 2022 is “The Year Of Harriet Tubman.”
“You see these young students of diverse backgrounds getting involved in social justice movements having discussions around racial equality in the classroom and homes,” Compton said. “We need to support that as an institution and fill in those gaps.”
Historians in Maryland are thrilled to see one of the state’s — and the nation’s — most important figures celebrated for her death-defying efforts to lead slaves to freedom. It’s long overdue, some say, especially because there are many people who are unfamiliar with Tubman’s story.
Born in the early 1820s on the Eastern Shore, Tubman spent her youth as a house servant, enslaved along with her parents and eight siblings on a plantation in Dorchester County. Terrified of seeing her family separated by slave auctions after their master died, Tubman fled to Pennsylvania in 1849 but returned the next year on her first rescue trip to liberate her niece.
Tubman led more than a dozen escape groups to the North by 1860, and historians estimate more than 70 enslaved people found freedom following Tubman along the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Tubman served the Union Army as a scout, spy and nurse. In her later years and until her death in 1913, Tubman resided in Auburn, New York, where she opened a home to care for the needy and elderly.
“It’s always interesting as a historian when people don’t know about historical figures because we teach about these people all the time, and so we just hope that our students listen in class and have some takeaway,” said Tamara Brown, a history professor and director of women’s studies at Bowie State.
Catherine Clinton, author of the widely praised 2004 biography “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom,” said Tubman’s story “has been left for too many years on the children’s shelf.”
“Do we not understand the Underground Railroad and the battle of slavery changed this country and made it a beacon for people coming to the U.S. for freedom and democracy?” Clinton said. “I also want her to be a blood and flesh person, not a bronze statue.
“I’d rather have people understand the dilemmas that she faced, especially returning to Maryland, her home, again and again to liberate family members [and] to rescue others from dire situations.”
A student-led grassroots movement is seeking to ensure such stories are told. The movement, #DiversifyOurNarrative, encourages schools to incorporate more diverse and anti-racist material in the classroom. Since June 2020, the organization has become involved with more than 800 school districts across the country.
Federal efforts to honor Tubman’s accomplishments as a slave-liberator and humanitarian include a push in recent years to put the abolitionist’s portrait on the $20 bill. In 2016, President Barack Obama’s administration proposed replacing the image of Andrew Jackson, a founding father who owned slaves and enacted legislation that was harmful to indigenous people, with that of Harriet Tubman.
The revamped currency is scheduled to be released in 2030, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Hogan has urged Marylanders to dedicate some of their time to visiting the historical sites tied to Tubman’s past such as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Church Creek.
“It is truly inspiring to think about how we can all walk along the same path as she did where she forged her indelible legacy of freedom, but the celebration of her life should not end this week or this month,” Hogan said at a March 12 press conference, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth in Dorchester County as well as the fifth year since the visitor center opened.
Dana Paterra, the manager of the visitor center and state park, said the facility received more attention from the media and tourists after Hogan’s commencement of the year of Tubman. According to Paterra, more than 1,500 people came to the visitor center the weekend of Hogan’s announcement despite rainy weather and icy roads.
“The message that she leaves behind, her values of faith, family, community and freedom still resonate with people today … and what we want, especially young people, to leave with is that they can make a difference and they can be a powerful source for social justice,” Paterra said.
There is still work to be done, according to Ernestine Wyatt, the great-great-great grandniece of Tubman. While she was grateful for Hogan’s effort, Wyatt hopes the renewed attention for Tubman does not end after this year.
Wyatt has been a vocal advocate for Harriet Tubman Day and continues to fight for an earlier release of the updated $20 bill with Tubman on it. She recently rang the first of 200 bell tolls honoring Tubman and women veterans during the National Bell Festival at Arlington National Cemetery on New Year’s Day.
“How can I extend this, her relevancy, to be able to help other people to do what she did beyond 2022?” Wyatt said. “I want her to have every year about Harriet and her values, her approach to life, because she was very very successful in helping other people and doing things for this country.”