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New national park celebrates Harriet Tubman’s legacy

March 5, 2017 at 2:25 PM EDT
After Harriet Tubman, famed conductor of the Underground Railroad, rescued dozens of people from slavery and served in the Civil War, she settled down in the small city of Auburn in upstate New York and continued a life of service. The National Park Service recently made her property a national park, celebrating the later chapters of her life. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

By Megan Thompson and Mori Rothman

KAREN HILL: If you step onto these grounds, you know that you’re in a hallowed place.

MEGAN THOMPSON: This property on the edge of Auburn, a small city in central New York, is the place where Harriet Tubman spent the last 50 years of her life.

Karen Hill is President and CEO of the non-profit organization that has preserved the property and fought for it to become one of America’s national parks.

KAREN HILL: Her legacy is embodied in her core values and how we lift them up. Freedom, faith, family, community, justice, self-determination. These are the things that every day of her life, she tried to advance.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Tubman secured her place in history as one of the conductors on the Underground Railroad- a network of paths and safe houses that brought thousands slaves from the South to freedom in the North before the Civil War. Tubman risked her life again and again by returning to the South to rescue her siblings, her elderly parents, and other slaves. She is credited with personally leading some 70 slaves to freedom.

Tubman was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation. But around age 27, she ran away and escaped to a free state, Pennsylvania, where she started a new life in Philadelphia.

During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and spy for the North, and became the first woman to lead an armed raid, which rescued some 700 slaves in South Carolina.

After the war, she settled in Auburn, a free, land-owning black woman. The area was progressive, central to both the abolitionist and suffrage movements.

KAREN HILL: This is the crown jewel of the Underground Railroad movement. This is the touchstone. This is where Harriet came after completing her campaigns.

MEGAN THOMPSON: This brick house was Tubman’s base when she wasn’t traveling around the country…giving speeches, fighting for the women’s right to vote, and raising money to support freed slaves. She eked out a living on proceeds from a book, a small pension, her farm and a brick-making business. The property was home not just her extended family, but to the less-fortunate who needed a place to stay. Tubman even built an infirmary.

KAREN HILL: She provided free healthcare to everybody. Not just to African Americans, but to anybody who needed it. This is the remaining home for the aged

MEGAN THOMPSON: Tubman started a home for the elderly, funded by donations. This is the only one of the original nine cottages that remains.

KAREN HILL: In town, there was a home for the aged, but it was segregated, it was for Whites only, and so she provided this home so that the former slave could age in dignity and in grace.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Tubman lived into her 90’s and died in 1913. She was buried in a cemetery nearby. Her home fell out of the family’s possession and into disrepair. In the 1990’s, the AME Zion church- the church Tubman belonged to- bought the home and started a nonprofit to restore the property. In 2006, it opened the visitor’s center, and started giving regular tours. With the national park service now involved, they’re hoping to do even more. Frank Barrows supervises the new Harriet Tubman National Historical Park.

FRANK BARROWS: Bringing a national park to a community does a few things. It certainly raises the visibility of the site. National parks are also an economic driver, because of the tourism dollars that are spent. For every dollar spent in federal funds on national parks, $10 is put back into local economies.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The park has opened at a time of renewed interest in Tubman’s life. Two feature films about her are in the works, and in 2020, the Treasury Department is due to unveil a design for a new twenty dollar bill with Tubman on the front. There’s also a second national park dedicated to the Underground Railroad chapter of her life opening this month in Maryland.

FRANK BARROWS: National parks are a great source of community identity and pride. It means something to say that, “I’m from the town where Harriet Tubman lived. I’m from the town where Harriet Tubman continued her legacy, and where she’s buried.”

JUDITH BRYANT: This is my great grandfather, this is Harriet’s nephew.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Judith Bryant is the great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman. The great-great granddaughter of a brother Tubman rescued in 1854.

JUDITH BRYANT: I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done what she did,

MEGAN THOMPSON: She lives in a nearby house built by Tubman’s nephew in 1901. Bryant says Tubman’s extended family in Auburn was very close knit.

JUDITH BRYANT: That was her motivating factor, and so she rescued her family first.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Bryant’s mother knew the elderly Tubman when she was a child.

JUDITH BRYANT: My mother said Harriet would come and sit in the corner by the door, she would appear to doze off until somebody said something that she was either maybe a little off-color or then she would sit up and-


JUDITH BRYANT: Sit up and, yes, perk up, open her eyes and this was sort of make it understood that she didn’t quite approve of it.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Bryant and her family donated Tubman’s bed to the park, and a sewing machine. Bryant also has a large collection of family memorabilia.

JUDITH BRYANT: This is a 1911 bill.

MEGAN THOMPSON: …For a hospital stay at the end of Tubman’s life.

JUDITH BRYANT: This is a pamphlet…

MEGAN THOMPSON: A pamphlet featuring Tubman and other local dignitaries.

JUDITH BRYANT: This is a picture that is not often seen…

MEGAN THOMPSON: Bryant is proud to preserve the legacy of her great-great-great aunt. And she’s thrilled the new national park will now do the same.

JUDITH BRYANT: It’s a wonderful thing not just for Auburn but for the country. And people need to see this story and see what went on here.