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Harriet Tubman Day Event Commemorates, Revitalizes Historic Figure
Image by National Museum of African American History and Culture, Library of Congress
For Janae Smith ’25, Harriet Tubman isn’t just a figure from the past, but one, quite literally, in Smith’s present. The abolitionist and suffragist is memorialized with statues and murals all over Smith’s hometown of Cambridge, Md., in Dorchester County, so Smith thought she “knew everything (about Tubman), being from her county.”
But as she learned more about Black women’s history at the University of Maryland, she realized that her knowledge didn’t extend beyond the basics from a casual Google search.
Not anymore. Smith is among the participants in today’s Harriet Tubman Day event held by the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. With the theme “Reclaiming Histories, Creating Futures,” the event and those behind it hope to bring Tubman out of history lore and into contemporary life in a way that feels directly linked to the 21st century.
“We don’t want Harriet Tubman to simply remain as a legacy,” said Michelle V. Rowley, associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies, and organizer of the virtual event. “We want to constantly remind ourselves and our various communities that her legacy is still relevant to ongoing calls for justice.”
Rowley and other faculty members chose three principles as pillars of the event, held on the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth: community outreach, scholarship and student engagement. Marisela Gonzalez, a representative from Baltimore’s Village of Love and Resistance (VOLAR) community organizing group, will discuss how it views “community work as a contemporary expression of Harriet Tubman’s historical struggles,” said Rowley.
Julie Schablitsky, an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at UMD and chief of the Cultural Resources Division at the Maryland Department of Transportation, will present findings from her work on the site of Tubman’s father’s cabin in Dorchester County, where artifacts present “a fuller understanding of who Harriet Tubman was,” said Rowley. Descendants of Tubman, including UMD alum Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt ’95, will discuss how Tubman continues to influence the course of their lives.
Smith, along with students Brooke Mengistu ’25 and Sydney Neal ’24, will expound on a project they each undertook in Rowley’s class, “Constructions of Manhood and Womanhood in the Black Community,” to create a lesson plan about Tubman aimed at middle-school students. (The project was developed jointly by Rowley and Elsa Barkley Brown, associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies.) “Our main goal was to challenge the narrative (of Tubman) and provide a more dynamic understanding of her for young children,” said Mengistu.
Mengistu focused on a shawl allegedly given to Tubman by Queen Victoria and a pistol that she always carried. Her lesson plan asked students to consider how these belongings might have shaped Tubman, and to think of items in their own lives that represented an aspect of their personal stories.
Smith, meanwhile, created a podcast in which she interviewed Dorchester County residents to ask how they thought Tubman had affected the county’s progress on racial injustice. One interviewee, an older woman, said she felt a spiritual connection to Tubman and felt motivated by her to keep working for justice in the county; another said that the statues and murals honoring Tubman were merely cynical ploys for media attention and tourist dollars.
Rowley hopes the event will inspire a fresh rethinking of Tubman, one that allows for “both remembering and imagining a future that has greater levels of equity and justice built into it,” she said.
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