Drive through downtown Cambridge and you’ll see historic buildings with storefronts boasting high ceilings, good locations, and plenty of parking.
What you won’t see are a lot of businesses.
Dorchester County’s unemployment rate runs close to 10 percent, roughly 40 to 50 percent higher than Maryland’s overall rate. Caroline and Talbot counties also have higher-than-average unemployment.
For years, business leaders, government officials, and community members on the shore searched for a solution—some path that would guide them toward a better economy. They sought a leader who could inspire them to overcome the obstacles in their way.
They believe they’ve found that person in the form of a onetime slave who’s been dead nearly a century.
It’s Harriet Tubman, the iconic Underground Railroad conductor and the region’s most famous resident. And although she last lived on the Eastern Shore more than 160 years ago, she may be just the woman to revitalize it today.
Legislating for Landmarks
In February 2010, Maryland’s U.S. Senators, Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, along with New York’s Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, introduced bills to create two new national parks honoring Tubman. After the bills, which had been previously introduced in 2008 and 2009, failed to go anywhere, the senators refined them in order to create a proposal that will pass both houses of Congress.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, if it becomes a reality, will span Dorchester, Talbot, and Caroline counties and encompass 28 sites that played a part in Tubman’s early life or with the Underground Railroad. The companion park, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, in Auburn, New York, will feature sites relevant to Tubman’s later life and work.
Among the Maryland sites to be spotlighted is the Bucktown Village Store, where, as a child, Tubman is said to have committed her first act of defiance (for which she was seriously injured) when she tried to help another slave flee an angry overseer.
Other potential sites include Poplar Neck, a heavily forested area of Caroline County where Tubman made some of her most daring rescues; the Stanley Institute, a one-room schoolhouse in Dorchester County and the site of a mass slave escape in 1857; and the Faith Community United Methodist Church, where Underground Railroad agent Rev. Samuel Green helped slaves on their way to freedom.
In total, more than two dozen Eastern Shore sites—many still looking as they did in the 19th century—have been identified in relation to Tubman and the Underground Railroad. It’s an area of Maryland and the nation that can help illustrate a period of U.S. history before the Civil War, when attitudes toward slavery were changing and people were beginning to act on their belief that the “peculiar institution” was wrong.
“This is not just black history—it’s American history,” says U.S. Representative Richard Hanna, who represents New York’s 24th District (which encompasses the area where Tubman once lived) and supports the parks’ creation.
The Question of Cost
The idea for establishing new Tubman-oriented national parks in New York and Maryland initially came about in 2000, when Congress directed the secretary of the interior to study the potential for creating such parks to commemorate the former slave.
Unfortunately, the vision hasn’t yet become a reality, largely because of the projected cost to develop and maintain the parks. Land needs to be purchased, markers made, visitors’ centers constructed, and personnel hired. The legislation also comes at a time when the economy is slow and the national debt exceeds $15 trillion.
“The debt makes our job more difficult,” says Sally Kenyon Grant, the federal policy coordinator with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, “but this [park] will create jobs on the Eastern Shore that will help the economy.”