By Melanie Eversley
http://t.co/AFbA5Ep via @thegrio
Nearly a century after her death, there's new buzz over Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad "conductor."
The 5-foot-2, physically challenged escaped slave is the motivation behind two national projects in the works, a conference and even a recent controversy. As interest grows, more facts come out about Tubman that make her seem more tied to powerful women in modern times.
"In my mind, it's just her time that we're finally going to recognize her," said Barbara Tagger, a National Park Service historian who has been studying Tubman for several years.
Tagger and other admirers point out that this illiterate, physically tiny African-American woman personally guided hundreds of slaves to freedom, warning them she would shoot them if they tried to turn back, kept going even when her husband refused to leave their native Maryland, advised federal officials during the Civil War and worked as a respected equal alongside male leaders. Later in life, she settled down with a new husband 20 years her junior.
Key for Ellen Mousin, coordinator of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference, is that Tubman kept returning to her native Eastern Shore in Maryland to get more slaves even after she'd found her freedom. Some in the area say landowners were baffled as to why their slaves just kept vanishing during that time.
"She's the only one that kept coming back and she kept coming back because of family," Mousin said. "She's kind of a model for how important family can be."
Mousin once lived in Auburn, N.Y., where Tubman spent the last years of her life, but it was not until Mousin moved to the Eastern Shore, where Tubman was born, that she found herself with more time to start studying the abolitionist.
Early in June, she oversaw the second annual Harriet Tubman conference. It drew 110 people, a dramatic increase from the 30 people who came the first year. People who attended discussed everything from the importance of oral history to the logistics of research in a small town.
What they all had in common was an almost cult-like appreciation of Tubman, who some point out was not daunted in her Railroad activities even after her husband decided he wanted to be with someone else, and who was able to bend the ears of powerful white male figures of the times.
"Despite the fact that she could not read or write, she could tell her story and raise money," Mousin said.
The conference run by Mousin and a local history organization is just one of a handful of efforts that have been bubbling up to recognize Tubman, who died in 1913. Two visitors' centers are in the works in Auburn, N.Y., and Cambridge, Md. And in recent months, Maryland lawmakers entered into a heated debate over replacing a statue of the president of the Continental Congress, a Maryland native, in the U.S. Capitol with one of Tubman. The pro-Tubman lawmakers did not win that fight in the last state legislative session, but the debate drew national attention to a growing sentiment in Maryland that Tubman deserves and elevated place in history.
"You have this petite woman, but yet she has such a big voice in the world," said Tagger, of the National Park Service.