Harriet unbound

December 12, 2004

VISITORS to Dorchester County who seek Harriet Tubman's birthplace are headed for disappointment. They may find the historic marker near the tiny village of Bucktown, but the land where she spent most of her life as a slave is private property. Tourists sometimes mistakenly believe that an old hunting lodge may be her home and wander around it. Some worry the adventurous trespasser may find himself at the wrong end of a shotgun during hunting season.

Ms. Tubman, one of the great heroines of American history, deserves better -- and so do the tourists who want to learn more about her Eastern Shore upbringing, her escape in 1849 and her multiple returns to free others. Fortunately, local officials have begun taking their Tubman heritage more seriously. In large part, that's because they recognize the economic opportunities that heritage may represent.

Thanks to the success of a 350-acre Hyatt waterfront resort in Cambridge, the county is becoming a popular tourist destination. Ms. Tubman is by far its most famous daughter, and history lovers have long made the pilgrimage here to learn more about her upbringing. At least two private companies have recently started offering Tubman-related tours, as do some nonprofit groups. A small Tubman museum run by volunteers in Cambridge may be regarded as a well-kept secret, but the county hopes to expand its appeal with a driving tour through Dorchester and neighboring Caroline County.

In Ms. Tubman's native Bucktown, a one-time general store -- the site where she was almost killed when an angry overseer struck her head with a 2-pound iron weight -- is being privately renovated to re-create its 19th-century appearance and will have Tubman-era artifacts on display.

But what Dorchester lacks is a true destination, an interpretive center where visitors could experience the life of an Underground Railroad operator and abolitionist, and walk the land that she once walked. How much would such a project cost? Perhaps $1 million or more. No one even knows where it might be located. The county certainly doesn't have the resources to pay for one.

So here's a modest proposal. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has gotten quite a bit of grief in recent weeks for spending $2.7 million on taxpayer-financed ads that seem to be pitching him as much as tourism or anything else. Take half that budget and create the kind of facility that the woman whom many called the "Moses of her people" deserves. Tourism is better served. Dorchester's 7.7 percent unemployment rate is given some relief. And the Ehrlich administration could take the credit. That would be good publicity for all involved.

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