Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and leader of the underground railroad, might finally be getting long-awaited recognition.
The state approved yesterday a $208,000 purchase of 20 acres on the Eastern Shore to create a visitors center and educational complex devoted to the woman who led many slaves to freedom.
The Tubman center, which could cost more than $12 million, will be on Route 335 near Key Wallace Drive in Dorchester County, near where Tubman was a slave before escaping.
Gov. Martin O'Malley led the Board of Public Works in approving the project. By the same vote, the board endorsed the preservation of 728 acres of land nearby, just north of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which had been threatened by a $1 billion golf resort.
"There is a tremendous amount of human history and natural history on the Eastern Shore, and today was a terrific day for preserving both the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and the life and contributions of Harriet Tubman," O'Malley said.
The project will include a visitors center with educational displays about Tubman's life, a memorial garden and a heritage tour of sites used by the Underground Railroad.
The state will hold a national competition for the design of the educational center, which is likely be an energy-efficient "green" building, said John R. Griffin, Maryland's secretary of natural resources.
"This will be a great way for people to get a feel for Harriet Tubman and her environment," Griffin said. "She spent a lot of time hiding in the Blackwater area and sheltering slaves there" as she helped them escape to freedom, he said.
In the past, Tubman's relatives have complained that Tubman, who died in her 90s in 1913, never received the attention from historians and the public that she merited.
She was born into slavery and grew up on a plantation in Bucktown. After escaping to Pennsylvania, she made eight or nine expeditions back into Maryland to rescue scores of slaves. Wearing disguises, and sometimes carrying a musket, she became known as "Moses" for delivering people from bondage. During the Civil War, she worked as a Union spy and nurse.
The only museum devoted to her today is a small storefront exhibit run by volunteers in Cambridge, open two days a week.
Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Museum Inc. in Cambridge, said the educational center will mean she's finally getting her due.
"It's something that hasn't been told - the story of Harriet Tubman. Because naturally all of her work was done in secret," Pinder said. "She was a conductor in the Underground Railroad, and so naturally she couldn't tell anybody about it. ... The only way to keep it successful was to keep it secret."
The land transaction approved yesterday includes the purchase of 20 acres of forested land north of Key Wallace Drive and east of Route 335 from a private owner. The state also approved a swap of this land for a 17-acre parcel owned by a conservation group about a half a mile west on Key Wallace Drive.