She had many labels given to her during her long life — slave, nurse, spy, cook, conductor — and now Harriet Tubman’s fascinating legacy of sacrifice, courage and freedom has been recognized with the creation of the Harriet Tubman National Park in Auburn, N.Y. Formally established in January, the park encompasses several sites where Tubman lived and worshiped during the final half of her life.
Harriet was born into slavery in Maryland in the early 1820s as Araminta Ross. She changed her name to Harriet after she married John Tubman, a freeman, in the early 1840s. In 1849, fearing she would be sold and separated from family, Tubman began a lengthy, dangerous and solitary journey toward freedom in Philadelphia.
She succeeded, eventually settling in Canada for a while. Instead of resting safely in the comfort of her own freedom, however, Tubman took extraordinary risks by continuing to travel back down south to bring others northward.
Her many trips along the secret routes of the Underground Railroad earned her the nickname “Moses.” While sources disagree as to the exact number of people she led to freedom, it is believed that she made about 13 trips back to Maryland, bringing at least 70 slaves northward through those trips alone.
As she would say later in life, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
In 1859, Tubman settled in Auburn and lived in the community for more than 50 years, continuing her passionate advocacy for abolition as well as women’s suffrage. A newly discovered portrait of Tubman depicts her in the 1860s, and was taken by a photographer in Auburn.
While her home base was Auburn, Tubman was active throughout the Civil War, working as a nurse and scout for the Union Army, fighting for those threatened by the Fugitive Slave Act and speaking out about the abolitionist cause.
In 1863, she took part in a military attack, the Raid at Combahee Ferry, and helped to free at least 700 people.
The recently designated park includes the Harriet Tubman residence, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church and Rectory, and Tubman’s gravesite.
Tubman had long cared for the needy in her own home, but in 1908 she was able to establish the Home for the Aged as a residence for elderly and destitute African Americans. Tubman died in 1913 and the property was left to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
By the 1930s the residence was closed and by the 1940s it was crumbling. Efforts to save the building as a shrine to Tubman were undertaken by members of the church. The structure was largely rebuilt around 1949 as a result of their efforts, and dedicated as a memorial to Tubman in 1953.
Now restoration plans are under way for her home, the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church and the adjoining rectory. (While they undergo restoration, the interiors for all three are closed to the public.) The new park is considered a “sister” park to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Cambridge, M.D., which was established in 2013.
Tubman’s likeness will adorn a newly designed $20 bill to be unveiled in 2020.
The outdoor park with its historic buildings and cemetery with Tubman’s grave can be visited from dawn to dusk. The Home for the Aged, which also serves as a Visitor Center, is open six days a week.
The park is not the only attraction in the area. The town of Auburn had a large free black community and a strong abolitionist presence during Tubman’s time. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State under Lincoln and a former Governor of New York, was a friend of Harriet’s and assisted her in settling into Auburn.
Seward’s early 19th century house, now the Seward House Museum is just about a mile away and can be visited via guided tour. Also nearby is the Cayuga Museum & Case Research Lab, located in the former home of Theodore Case, who made talkies possible with the invention of a commercially viable system to record sound on film.
How to Visit
Harriet Tubman National Park
Address: 180-182 South Street, Auburn, N.Y. 13021
Hours: The outdoor park is open dawn to dusk; the Home for the Aged and Visitor Center is open Thursday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Directions: The park is about five hours by car from Brooklyn via I-80 and I-81. Amtrak goes to Syracuse, and the museum is a 30-mile taxi ride away.
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