From Maxwell Perspective...

Celebrating Harriet Tubman

The archeological efforts of Douglas Armstrong and his students will be on display at a new national park honoring the former slave and abolitionist.

In December, President Barack Obama signed a law that authorized the establishment of a national park at Harriet Tubman’s long-time home in Auburn, New York.

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For 17 years, Douglas Armstrong, professor of anthropology (far left), has led students through archeological projects at the Tubman home historic site in Auburn, New York. Now the site has been approved for National Park status. Front row left are the site’s longtime caretakers, Rev. Paul and Christine Carter.

The Harriet Tubman National Park will be the first national park to recognize an African American woman and acknowledges Tubman’s contributions as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well as her later life in Auburn, where she was active in social causes and established the Home for the Aged to care for elderly African Americans.

 “What makes this site so important is that Harriet Tubman actually lived here for 50 years and we have evidence of her life,” says Douglas Armstrong, professor of anthropology.

Without Armstrong, it’s quite possible the historic park would not be happening. Much of what is known about Tubman’s life in Auburn is due to his archeological work at the site during the last 17 years, some of it conducted as part of a “field school” summer course, where his students learned the field techniques of archeology while also learning about Tubman. While Armstrong believes Tubman’s legacy alone would have led eventually to national park status, the archeological work provided factual context and strengthened the case.

Through the years, Armstrong and his students have amassed a tremendous collection of material objects that, combined with other information, paint a picture of Tubman’s life in Auburn. They have found remains of her first house, which was destroyed in a fire in 1880, as well as a second home rebuilt around it from bricks possibly made on the property. Other structures on the 32-acre property include John Brown Hall, which served as a dormitory or infirmary for the Home for the Aged, a brick kiln, and a barn.  

“We’re preserving an important piece of American history.”
— Douglas Armstrong

“Harriet Tubman has a unique history,” says Armstrong. “She was a former slave, but she was a property owner. She was a farmer. She was involved in the brick-making industry. So here you have a black-constructed house, from bricks that were probably made by blacks, on a site owned by blacks in the late 1800s.”

The site is owned by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn, to whom Tubman deeded the property in 1903, and operated through a not-for-profit, the Harriet Tubman Home Inc. (HTH). The church has struggled to maintain the property as a tourist site since opening it to the public in 1953, with limited expertise and funding. Here Armstrong has helped, too. Through the years, he has worked with the AME Zion pastor, Rev. Paul Carter, and his wife, Christine Carter, who together manage the property, and with Karen Hill, executive director of HTH, to secure designation as a national park.

He says the legislation was a long time coming. “This property represents a transition from the period in which Harriet Tubman was actively bringing people to freedom and a period in which people were living in freedom,” he says. “We’re preserving an important piece of American history.”

The national park designation sets up a format for enhanced site interpretation. However, the site still needs specific funding for an interpretive center — a facility to educate and inform the public, present the rich material culture of the site, and house a library, artifacts, and other records. A well-designed interpretive center will encourage visitation and thus serve the regional economy.

He points to the Revolutionary Warera Fort Stanwix in Rome, New York, which was named a national park but did not have an interpretive center for more than 30 years. “It’s only with the construction of that center about six years ago that the public has full access to all the interpretive information about the site. We’re not going to let this sit for 30 more years,” he says.

The team is working to secure funding — hopefully from both New York State and private donors — to begin work on the interpretive center, which Armstrong would like to see open within three years.

 Structural preservation of the Tubman house is complete and the team is waiting for formalization of national park status to begin interior work. Armstrong and his graduate students are currently curating excavated objects to determine what will go on display and have already mounted three exhibits in a small museum at the site. One features tea sets and social interaction among residents of the Tubman home and between Tubman and other townspeople. “The women in town would get together for tea and discuss issues of the day,” says Armstrong. “Tubman was often an honored guest.”

Armstrong believes the Harriet Tubman National Park has the potential to increase tourism to the region. “Our idea is to tie in the variety of abolition and underground railroad sites throughout Central New York,” he says. “People will be attracted here because of Harriet Tubman but then encouraged to explore other sites in the area.”

— Renée Gearhart Levy

This article appeared in the summer 2015 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2015 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.