Sense of historical disparity

Harriet Tubman's relatives say she deserves same due as fellow Marylander and abolitionist Frederick Douglass

February 28, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE — CAMBRIDGE-- --Even the great man himself acknowledged the disparity in their recognition.

"I have had the applause of the crowd," Frederick Douglass wrote to fellow abolitionist, escaped slave and Marylander Harriet Ross Tubman.

But, he wrote in the 1868 letter, three years after slavery was abolished in the United States, "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses to your devotion to freedom."

Nearly a century and a half later, Tubman's family descendents say there's still truth - and consequences - to his words.

"We're tired of being in the back," said Patricia Ross Hawkins, 45, a Tubman family descendant who lives in Salisbury, on the Eastern Shore - once home to both Douglass and Tubman. Hawkins is a member of the sixth generation descended from a brother of Tubman, whose maiden name was Ross.

Though they mean no disrespect to Douglass, family descendants say the woman known as "Moses" among the slaves she led to freedom along the Underground Railroad deserves a greater share of historical attention. Douglass has a sparkling waterfront museum and venerable high school named for him in the city, and his Washington mansion was reopened to the public this month after costly renovations.

Tubman sites in the region include a modest, volunteer-run museum in Cambridge that is open twice a week and a Baltimore elementary school.

To underscore the point, the text of Douglass' letter is to be read today as a statewide tribute to Tubman opens at the Frederick Douglass--Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point, a $13 million Living Classrooms Foundation facility that opened last year.

"She's in a league of her own. We think there should be a state-of-the-art museum, a learning center and more buildings, statues and highways named after her," said Hawkins, an Army veteran. "I don't think she's been recognized on a national level as she should be."

Historians proffer a number of explanations for the disparity. The urbane and charismatic Douglass, born into slavery in Talbot County, became a celebrity who traveled abroad and called on Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Douglass also made a name as a newspaper publisher and later as a diplomat. His eloquent autobiographical account of bondage and escape is required reading in many schools.

Tubman, by contrast, crossed countless miles in stealth, leading fugitives by land, swamp and water through Chesapeake country. She never learned to read or write and much of what is known about her was handed down by oral tradition.

Louis C. Fields, president of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, predicts more attention will be paid to Tubman, given a wave of interest in redressing slavery's scars and in African-American historical culture, museums and tourism.

"We'd like to move up Harriet a bit," Fields said.

Until recently, he said, most of the books about her were written for children.

That's changing. Three Tubman biographers have sought to fill in the record in the past few years, including Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. Larson said her book, published three years ago, was inspired by going to the library with her daughter and finding a children's book about Tubman.

"I thought, `This woman is amazing.' Then I went to look for an adult biography, and all I could find was one written in 1943," said Larson, who teaches history at Simmons College in Boston. "She was neglected by the academic community for so long, but the time had come."

For years Tubman's memory was tended by family and community members. Public spaces dedicated to her often reflect the work of devoted amateurs. Currently there is a cinderblock mural in a park and a highway named for her in Cambridge.

A storefront museum on Race Street in Cambridge, managed by volunteers, is open two days a week. The exhibits are plain, such as the 1840 census showing the number of free blacks and slaves in Dorchester County was about even, hovering at 4,000.

It's a far cry from Cedar Hill, Douglass' historic home in Washington. Earlier this month, the National Park Service reopened the mansion to the public after a more than $2 million restoration.

Donald Pinder, who heads the Harriet Tubman Organization that runs the museum in Cambridge, said he considers her a unique figure who should not be seen as second to Douglass.

"What she did, nobody else did. He [Douglass] had the exposure, while she was leading a secret organization," Pinder said. "Very few people saw her, so she was never known nationally like Douglass. Harriet was an ordinary person who could not read or write, but an extraordinary person who gave all those people hope."

Two new government projects may help redress the imbalance. The state has convened a working group to identify land for a modern Tubman museum in Dorchester County. The National Park Service is considering a Harriet Tubman National Park, either in Maryland or upstate New York.

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