February 14, 2019 |Bill Crouch | Land

Honoring the Brave and Inspirational Life of Harriet Tubman

In 2015, I attended a ceremony at the Maryland Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis for the unveiling of a bust of Harriet Tubman. Created by sculptor Brendan O’Neil, the striking bronze depiction of this extraordinary woman marked the first portrayal of an African American in the mansion. After the formal presentations, I struck up a conversation with an African American woman who was attending with her two grandchildren. After I mentioned the role of the Fund in helping establish the Harriet Tubman National Monument, I realized that the woman had tears streaming down her face, with her grandchildren following suit. I then received one of the most impactful hugs of my life. As it turns out, all three were direct descendants of Harriet Tubman! It was then that I fully appreciated the magnitude and importance of this moment.

Photo by Bill Crouch.

How did we get to this auspicious day? Starting in 1993, the Fund acquired 1,336 acres in Dorchester County, Maryland known as the Ewing Tract. In 2013, we transferred most of the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for incorporation into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Then, we gifted the remaining 480 acres of the tract — discovered to be historically significant to the Harriet Tubman story — to the National Park Service to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which was established by President Obama via the Antiquities Act. This tract ultimately became part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park, which was created by the U.S. Congress in 2014.

In 2017, in collaboration with the National Park Service, the State of Maryland opened the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, at a cost of $22 million. The State Park has given visitors a destination and a focal point, and it has grown into a tangible economic engine for Dorchester County. In its first year of operation, the Tubman Park hosted approximately 90,000 visitors from all 50 states and over 60 countries. In its first 8 months of operation, the taxes generated in Dorchester County from spending on recreation and amusement increased by 414 percent. No doubt Harriet Tubman was driving these numbers.

Photo by Bill Crouch.

The success of the State Park offered a powerful rationale for protecting a much larger landscape. So, in 2018, the State of Maryland asked the Fund to establish and sponsor the Harriet Tubman Rural Legacy Area (HTRLA). Maryland’s Rural Legacy Program is a part of Maryland’s very popular Program Open Space. Program Open Space is funded through the real estate transfer tax and the rural legacy program protects large contiguous areas of rural landscapes and the resource-based economies they support — namely farming, forestry, recreation and tourism.

Given our role with the Tubman State Park and our strong relationship with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, the Fund was a natural fit for sponsoring the new HTRLA. Time was of the essence to obtain approval in 2018 by the Maryland Board of Public Works, which consists of the Governor, Treasurer and Comptroller.

Within about 90 days, we conducted a landowner meeting, met with the Dorchester county commissioners, conducted a public hearing in Dorchester County, compiled a voluminous application, and received approval from the Maryland Rural Legacy Advisory Council. And in August 2018, the new Harriet Tubman Rural Legacy Area was approved by the Board of Public Works.

This expanded historic landscape has been very well received, and in 2019, we began with the first phase of a 2,000-acre easement. We are hopeful that we can secure the home of Ms. Tubman’s enslaver, where during her childhood, Ms. Tubman saw three of her sisters sold away. Family fracturing arguably was one of the cruelest aspects of slavery.

We also have an opportunity to protect a key parcel next to the Bucktown Store, one of the most important sites in the Tubman story. The Bucktown Store is where Ms. Tubman was hit in the head with a lead weight by a slave catcher while she was trying to assist a fleeing enslaved young man. The store stands today much as it would have been during Ms. Tubman’s time. This event left her with seizures, brutal headaches, and visions that heavily influenced her life and more importantly her determination to fight the institution of slavery.

With the solid connection between resource-based economies and land conservation, the rural legacy program fits squarely within our mission. The Conservation Fund is honored to be a part of this nationally significant project, and with 28,300 acres to protect, we’ve got our sleeves rolled up and are ready to work.

Photo by Jim Walker.

Written by

Bill Crouch

Bill Crouch is The Conservation Fund’s Maryland State Director for conservation acquisitions.