CAMBRIDGE— Maryland is revisiting the story of Harriet Tubman following Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to dedicate 2022 to the notorious Underground Railroad kidnapper, which many scholars say is an opportunity to inspire young people.
“As far as the curriculum goes, 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 American adults said they learned “a full and accurate account of the role of African Americans in the United States” at school, compared to 66% who declared that their teachings “have fallen”. short” regarding African-American studies.
The United States has for decades erased the history of marginalized communities through inaccurate or inadequate education, but efforts by advocates 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 their contributions to American history, Compton said, “and with each new generation, we build on this momentum”.
The Banneker-Douglass Museum has seen an increase in in-person and online audience engagement, which Compton attributes to Hogan’s March proclamation that 2022 is “the year of Harriet Tubman.”
“You see these young students from diverse backgrounds getting involved in social justice movements by discussing racial equality in the classroom and at home,” Compton said. “We have to support that as an institution and fill those gaps.”
Maryland historians are thrilled to see one of the state’s — and the nation’s — most important figures celebrated for his death-defying efforts to lead slaves to freedom. It’s been a long time, some say, mostly because so many people don’t know Tubman’s story.
Born in the early 1820s on the East Coast, Tubman spent her youth as a servant, enslaved with her parents and eight siblings on a plantation in Dorchester County. Terrified of seeing her family separated by slave auctions after the death of their master, Tubman fled to Pennsylvania in 1849 but returned the following year on her first rescue trip to free her niece.
Tubman led more than a dozen escape parties north in 1860, and historians estimate that more than 70 slaves found freedom following Tubman along the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Tubman served the Union Army as a scout, spy, and medic. 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 aged.
“It’s always interesting as a historian when people don’t know historical figures because we teach about these people all the time, and so we just hope our students listen in class and have takeaways,” said Tamara Brown, a history teacher. and director of women’s studies at Bowie State.
Catherine Clinton, author of the highly regarded 2004 biography “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom,” said Tubman’s story “has been left on the children’s shelf for too many years.”
“Do we not understand that the Underground Railroad and the battle for slavery changed this country and made it a beacon for people coming to the United States for freedom and democracy?” said Clinton. “I also want her to be a person of blood and flesh, not a bronze statue.
“I would rather people understood the dilemmas she faced, especially going back to Maryland, her home, again and again, to free her family members. [and] to save others from dire situations.
A student-led grassroots movement seeks to ensure that such stories are told. The movement, #DiversifyOurNarrative, encourages schools to bring more diverse and anti-racist material into the classroom. As of June 2020, the organization has engaged with over 800 school districts across the country.
Federal efforts to honor Tubman’s accomplishments as a slave freer 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 harmful to Indigenous peoples, with that of Harriet Tubman.
The revamped currency is expected to be released in 2030, according to the US Treasury Department.
Hogan urged Marylanders to spend some of their time visiting historic sites related to Tubman’s past, such as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and the Visitor Center at Church Creek.
“It’s truly inspiring to think about how we can all walk the same path as her where she forged her indelible legacy of freedom, but the celebration of her life isn’t expected to end this week or month- ci,” Hogan said during 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 reception center opened.
Dana Paterra, the visitor center and state park manager, said the facility received more attention from the media and tourists after Hogan’s start of Tubman’s year. According to Paterra, more than 1,500 people came to the visitor center the weekend of Hogan’s announcement despite the rainy weather and icy roads.
“The message she left behind, her values of faith, family, community and freedom still resonate with people today…and what we, especially young people, want to leave is that they can make a difference and they can be a powerful source of social justice,” Paterra said.
There’s still work to be done, according to Ernestine Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece. While grateful for Hogan’s efforts, Wyatt hopes the renewed attention for Tubman doesn’t end after this year.
Wyatt was a strong 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 bells to honor Tubman and female veterans during the National Bell Festival at Arlington National Cemetery on New Year’s Day.
“How do I extend that, her relevance, to be able to help other people do what she did beyond 2022?” Wyatt said. “I want her to talk every year about Harriet and her values, her approach to life, because she’s been so successful in helping others and doing things for this country.”
This article was published orally on CNSMaryland.org.