CHURCH CREEK — Descendants of Harriet Tubman, dignitaries from the city, county, state and national levels, and other invited guests gathered for the grand opening at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Dorchester County on Friday, March 10, Harriet Tubman Day.

The state park and visitor center is located at 4068 Golden Hill Road in Church Creek near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Tubman’s descendants and guests wiped away tears during the program, which featured remarks by Gov. Larry Hogan; Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford; U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Superintendent of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Nita Settina; Dorchester County Council President Ricky Travers; state Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore; and Deputy Regional Director of the National Park Service Northeast Region Rose Fennell.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp also were in attendance.

“Harriet Tubman’s contributions to our state and nation transcend race, gender, nationality and religion, and her legacy continues to inspire others to this day,” Hogan said. “This visitor center is yet another way to honor this Maryland hero, and serves as an invitation to all people to learn more about Harriet Tubman and how her acts of determination, courage and selflessness impacted our nation.”

Tubman was born in Dorchester County and lived there as a slave until she was nearly 30 years old. She escaped slavery in 1849, yet risked her life to return to the Eastern Shore many times to help others in their journey to freedom. She helped about 70 slaves escape and led them north. Some went as far north as Canada.

The state park is about 17 acres and features a 10,000-square foot Leadership in Energy and Environment Design Silver rated visitor center, legacy garden and an open-air pavilion with a stone fireplace.

The visitor center houses the exhibit hall, gift shop, information desk, research library and restrooms. Visitors begin their experience with an immersive, two- to three-minute audio-visual theater feature to show a day in the life of Tubman. Upon exiting the theater, guests can see a three-dimensional reconstructed scene of a slave auction at the Dorchester County Courthouse.

Then visitors can explore how the landscape of the Choptank River Region shaped Tubman’s early life, and the importance of her faith, family and community. The exhibit also features information about Tubman’s role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and her work as a freedom fighter, humanitarian, leader and liberator.

Other areas in the main space provide information about her work as a slave, her experience at the Bucktown Village Store, her strong faith in God and her liberation from slavery. Many of the exhibits feature touch panels and sound sticks to provide additional information and stories.

Friday’s program opened with music by the choir and brass quartet of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Harriet Tubman re-enactor Millicent Sparks performed a moving portrayal of Tubman for the standing-room-only crowd.

A traditional African libation was performed by Okomfo Doctor Adwoa Tano (Angela McMillan). Flags were presented by B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

“As a state and as a nation, we’ve come a long way since the days when Harriet Tubman walked these very lands. But here in Maryland, we will never forget that we owe much of that progress to trailblazers like Harriet Tubman, who paved the way for so many others,” Hogan said.

The governor pledged to commit the necessary funding to ensure completion of the project, above the $300,000 already included in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Cardin praised Tubman for her dedication and sacrifice, not only to freeing slaves, but to fighting for the Union during the Civil War, fighting for women’s rights during the suffrage movement and fighting for the elderly.

“This is truly a great day for our country and a great day for this region,” said Cardin. “The 104th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman. We celebrate her life today.

“She’s an inspiration, and this visitor center is going to be so important for telling that story. It is going to bring a lot of people here. It’s going to help the economy. I know that the local officials will particularly appreciate the fact that we’re going to be helping the economy.”

Settina said this park is meant for more than the story of how Tubman helped slaves to freedom. The visitor center and byway stops memorialize her work on the Underground Railroad and also paint a picture of who she was as a human being, to share her faith, her love of family, her joys and her heartaches, she said.

“At 17 acres, this park may be one of the smallest in our system, but just like Harriet Tubman, it will loom largest in the hearts and minds of many around the world,” said Settina. “This project has been part of my life for the past eight years, but the collective vision that brought us here today has been shaped over decades by the family of Tubman herself, by esteemed historians, gifted architects, engineers and artists.”

Travers took a moment to reflect on two individuals important to the celebration of Tubman’s life and legacy — Evelyn Townsend and John Creighton — who passed away before the park was completed.

Townsend was instrumental in the development of the Harriet Tubman Museum in downtown Cambridge.

Creighton worked tirelessly to document the life stories of Tubman. He was honored recently with a ceremonial tree planting at the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden Park in Cambridge.

“Words cannot describe how important this visitor center is, not just to Dorchester County, not just to the Eastern Shore, but the State of Maryland, also, and the nation,” Travers said. “This will allow us an opportunity to showcase how proud we are to be the birthplace and home to one of America’s greatest heroes, Harriet Tubman.

“To think, she toiled in these lands. She trapped muskrats. She logged with her father. She worked in these fields right here, the very land that you can immerse yourself into today.”

Fennell shared a personal story about how Tubman inspires her. She said whenever she needs to make an important decision, she asks herself what Tubman would do, and that’s the path she takes.

She also praised the many departments and individuals who came together to make the park possible.

“From the very beginning of the National Park Service in 1916, public-private partnerships have played a critical role in providing memorable visitor experiences,” Fennell said. “Partnerships like the one we are celebrating today are now a best practice for engaging new audiences, preserving landscapes and telling amazing stories. Today is a culmination of the hard work and commitment of so many partners.”

The ceremony closed with the ringing of the Appamatox Bell, formerly owned by two slaves emancipated by the Civil War, Daniel and Phoebe Scruggs. Ora McCoy, their great-granddaughter, owns the bell now.

After the ceremony and cutting of the ribbon, Hogan, Franchot and other dignitaries took a private tour of the exhibits with the descendants of Harriet Tubman.

The public grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center was held Saturday, March 11, and continues Sunday, March 12. Programming includes a performance by re-enactor Millicent Sparks, a haiku and creative writing workshop with National Park Service Centennial Poet Laureate Dr. Sonia Sanchez, a simulated Underground Railroad journey with historian Tony Cohen and a book signing by Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.

For more information about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Dorchester County, visit dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/eastern/tub man.aspx.

Follow me on Twitter @victoriadorstar and on Instagram @dorchester.star.

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