camera icon © Heidi Besen | Shutterstock

Harriet Tubman's Story

This is how parts of American history disappear.

How climate change is affecting the legacy of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad and a national park’s landscape on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a sweeping expanse of marshland stretches to meet the sky. Each day as the tide rolls in, water creeps across an increasing number of roads, cutting off rural villages. In time, the water silently slips away before returning with the next high tide.

Solutions: Changing the U.S. Direction on Climate Change

Over the past two years, the EPA has taken strident actions to advance the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda by dismantling commonsense rules to limit greenhouse gas pollution from dirty, outdated energy sources. In 2017, the Trump administration moved to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement — a global treaty committing nations to a variety of measures, including developing renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions, sequestering pollution through conservation of forests, and building climate resilience. Fortunately, others are stepping forward to make up for this backward move: 17 individual states and over 500 cities, counties and tribal communities have committed to meet the Paris Agreements.

EPA is rolling back regulations that place sound and necessary limits on carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants, the largest stationary source of climate pollution, and repealing requirements for new power plants to have the best emission controls. The agency is also weakening national standards for pollution from oil and gas development, including methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and volatile organic compounds, despite overwhelming public support to control and profit from this wasted gas. The EPA is gutting clean car rules—popular with Americans and even vehicle manufacturers. These standards aimed to clean up vehicle tailpipe pollution and removing them could result in 6 billion tons more climate-warming pollution in the atmosphere by 2025.

NPCA works to defend critical clean air and climate laws like these. We call on our members and supporters to engage in public policy making processes and tell stories of how our parks and people who love them are hurt by pollution. NPCA is also encouraging lawmakers to keep our commitments to the Paris Agreement as we demand a change in our nation’s direction on climate policy.

Twenty years ago, these roads were usually dry. Today, residents who live in southern Dorchester County plan their drives to work around the tides. Some are dispatchers in the county’s 911 call center. “Flooding is a way of life now,” says Anna Sierra, who once directed emergency services here.

The rhythm of the tides has always been part of the daily lives of the people in this place. Amanda Fenstermaker, the county’s director of tourism, lists them: “First the Native Americans, then the Europeans, then enslaved Africans and their descendants like Harriet Tubman. So, the landscape holds a deep history and is a natural platform to discuss both cultural and environmental issues.

“But,” she adds, “we know anecdotally from residents that the landscape is changing.” One thing leads to another: Air pollution leads to climate change, which leads to sea level rise, which leads to inconveniently flooded roads, then loss of cultural sites and eventually an entire landscape — and its history along with it. Somewhere in this landscape, around 1822, Harriet Tubman was born into an enslaved family. She grew up working: checking muskrat traps, laboring in fields and forests, hauling timber on the canal. In 1849, she escaped. Traveling mostly alone at night, she made it to Philadelphia. She secretly returned here 13 times over the next 10 years, navigating the marshes, fields and forests as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She risked her life to help friends, family and strangers escape north to freedom.

During the Civil War, she served the Union Army as an armed scout and a spy. She led an armed expedition that liberated more than 700 enslaved people. After the war, she fought for women’s suffrage as well as the rights of minorities, the disabled and the aged. 
One hundred and one years later, Congress set aside some of the landscape she escaped from, designating a national park to celebrate her legacy.

For Anna Sierra, a woman in the typically male-dominated field of emergency management, Harriet Tubman represents what women can do when they take it upon themselves to be empowered and do the right thing. Sierra likes to eat her lunch in Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. She likes to sit there and just be, absorbing that inspiration.

“Harriet Tubman is an American hero,” agrees Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor and director of community engagement, environmental justice and health at the University of Maryland-College Park.

But even before the park was created in 2014 to uphold Harriet Tubman’s legacy, rising sea levels had already begun to flood the roads and threaten the sites and landscapes that tell her story. “If we lose those heritage sites along the Underground Railroad,” Wilson warns, “we’re losing part of American history. When we forget the past, we’re doomed to forget the evils of the past and what it took to overcome them. This park is a beacon for what we need today and for our future. We wouldn’t let any of the parks that preserve the history of the Revolutionary War disappear. We should protect the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park the same way.”

Dorchester County does have a flood mitigation plan. It has identified projects to protect what’s at risk of being lost, from cultural sites to vulnerable communities. “But sadly,” Sierra points out, “those projects take money, and Dorchester is pretty impoverished. We’re very limited from a financial perspective in what we can accomplish.”

And so, each day, the water creeps higher.

“Climate change doesn’t cause environmental injustice. It reveals it,” says Wilson. “We must invest in fighting climate change, and we must do a better job of equity in disaster preparation, response and recovery to protect people who don’t have a voice. Harriet Tubman fought for the most vulnerable. By fighting for this park, we’re honoring Harriet Tubman’s spirit.”

Air & Climate Read the Polluted Parks Report

Read more from NPCA