The Face of Freedom

Two potential park units would celebrate Harriet Tubman’s life.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

Mention Harriet Tubman, and people will probably recall a woman who was born into slavery, but accomplished some mighty things in her lifetime—like ushering slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. But for most Americans, the knowledge stops there. Few know that she was also a nurse, a Union spy, and the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. Even fewer know that she was a devout Christian who was beaten by a slave owner when she was a child, suffered epilepsy as a result, and interpreted her seizures—which often played out as vivid dreams and visions—as guiding messages from the Divine.

“In terms of revered Americans, Harriet Tubman rises to the top with the likes of Paul Revere and Betsy Ross,” says Alan Spears, NPCA’s legislative representative. “But like Revere and Ross, she’s also incredibly misunderstood.”

There’s a remedy for that. Last February, senators from Maryland and New York introduced a bill to create two new sites within the National Park System—one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where Tubman was born, and three buildings in Auburn, New York, where Tubman went to church, ran a refuge for liberated slaves, and made a home for 40 years until her death in 1913. NPCA is encouraging representatives to introduce a companion bill in the House—and quick.

“Time isn’t necessarily on our side,” Spears says. “Like any structure from the 1800s, the buildings in New York need upkeep and maintenance.” And even though the Eastern Shore hasn’t changed much since Tubman’s time thanks to the 25,000-acre Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, development outside its borders could still alter the landscape.

But creating these sites isn’t just about preserving history, or even making Americans smarter. It’s about engaging people who aren’t currently engaged in stories that are important to who they are and where they’ve come from. Like women, whose accomplishments are highlighted in only a handful our 394 park units, and African Americans.

“We’ve just started celebrating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and there’s a great danger that the entire four years will pass and not attract a great deal of African-American interest,” Spears says. “Because when people think about the Civil War, they think about what color uniform a certain unit wore, or what kind of tactics generals used to take this hill or that hill—and if you’re a Civil-War geek like I am, that stuff is fascinating. But for the general public, it can be very trivial, particularly for Black people whose ancestors were slaves. Adding Harriet Tubman sites will help reshape the way Americans think about the Civil War, its root causes, and its lasting consequences, and really help the Park Service create a 21st-century constituency for a 21st-century park system.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis is National Parks’ associate editor.

This article appears in the Summer 2011 issue.

National Parks, our award-winning quarterly magazine, is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association. Subscribe today!

Click here to continue reading this issue


Post a Comment

Thoughts about this article? Comments you'd like to share with the editors? Post your comments below* or send an e-mail to, and we'll consider printing your letter in the next issue of National Parks magazine. If you write a letter please include your name, city, and state. Published letters may be edited for length and clarity.

Enter this word:

* Your comments will appear once approved by the moderator. NPCA staff do not regularly respond to postings. We reserve the right to remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, or are off-topic. Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position(s) of NPCA. By submitting comments you are giving NPCA permission to reuse your words on our website and print materials.


Want to learn more about the  ?

The   can be seen in the wild in America’s national parks. Why not join the National Parks Conservation Association community to protect and preserve our national parks?

Sign up to protect parks in   & other states

Why not join the National Parks Conservation Association Community to protect and preserve our national parks?

Sign up to protect   and other National Parks

Why not join the National Parks Conservation Association Community to protect and preserve our national parks?

Please leave this field empty
Yes, please sign me up for NPCA’s newsletter and other emails about protecting our national parks!

National Parks Conservation Association
National Parks Conservation Association

Log In

Or log in with your connected Facebook or Twitter account:


Welcome to our growing community of park advocates. Thanks for signing up!

Sign Up:

Or sign up by connecting your Facebook or Twitter account: