Annual Meeting Preview: Interpreting the Geographies of Harriet Tubman’s Life: Public Engagement and the Harriet Tubman Experience on the Eastern Shore of Maryland

This session takes place on Saturday, April 6, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is solicited by the OAH Public History Committee.

Chair: Kate Clifford Larson, Independent Historian
• Diane Miller, National Park Service
• Dana Paterra, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park
• Angela Crenshaw, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park
• Marci Ross, Maryland Office of Tourism Development
• Kathy Mackel, Caroline County Historical Society
• Bill Jarmon, Harriet Tubman Organization

Interpreting the Geographies of Harriet Tubman’s Life: Public Engagement and the Harriet Tubman Experience on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

On March 10, 2017, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center opened in Church Creek, Maryland. Twelve years in the making, the Center is located within the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and operated with support from the National Park Service. It also serves as the headquarters for the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The LEED silver facility incorporates green technology and powerful symbolism in the design while featuring fact-based, emotive exhibits, and engaging, thought provoking programming. Its sister attraction, the 125-mile Tubman Byway and All-American Road, includes culturally and historically significant sites supported by fresh interpretation that evolved over nearly two decades of planning. The collective resource is designed to engage visitors of different ages and backgrounds in the history of slavery and the pursuit of freedom through Harriet Tubman’s lived experiences on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Honoring and celebrating Tubman’s struggles to resist and survive enslavement on the landscapes of her childhood and young adulthood, and encouraging visitors to explore these places—many still privately owned properties—has proved both challenging and rewarding, particularly in a region where descendants of both the enslaved and enslavers still live.

Identifying and documenting historically and culturally significant “bricks and mortar” sites and landscapes was but one phase of a collaborative process aimed at preserving and sharing these assets while generating tourism benefits in an economically depressed region. Involving local residents, descendants, private landowners, faith communities, business owners, cultural and historical site managers, politicians, historians, and other stakeholders required deliberate and concerted outreach efforts to foster dialogue and partnerships. Integrating tourism with heritage, especially “hard history” like slavery, to create marketable products and promote economic development required careful, respectful planning. Well positioned to meet the needs of surging interest in African American history, the projects’ county, state, and federal partners continue to explore new public history practices, expand and diversify interpretation, and promote ongoing collaborations for mutual benefit to stakeholders and visitors.

This roundtable will bring together representatives from the State Park, National Park, Byway, local tourism, community and other stakeholders. Resistance and roadblocks frequently disrupted the nearly twenty-year journey to create the Tubman Byway, and later the State and National Parks. A shared vision, persistence, committed stakeholders, and a dedicated community fueled their establishment. Roundtable participants will share with audience members the process to create the parks and byway, engage the community, convey Tubman's story within a larger rich multicultural history of slavery and freedom, and reflect on goals achieved, missed, or in process. Come hear about the pitfalls, successes, lessons learned, and future directions.

Kate Clifford Larson Ph.D.
Harriet Tubman website:

Author, Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015); Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine, 2004); and The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. (Basic Books, 2008).

Consulting Historian, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and National Park, and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and All American Road. Eastern Shore, Maryland.

Posted: January 29, 2019
Tagged: Previews, Conference, Public History, OAH Works