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The debate to fix an outdated and incorrect Harriet Tubman historic marker


On Maryland's Eastern Shore, there is a historical marker that says Harriet Tubman freed 300 enslaved people, except she didn't. It also suggests she was born nearby, except she wasn't. Some historians say it's past time for Maryland to set the record straight on the woman known as Moses. From Member Station WYPR in Baltimore, John Lee reports.

JOHN LEE, BYLINE: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Md., recently had a special guest - Tubman herself, portrayed by Millicent Sparks.

MILLICENT SPARKS: (As Harriet Tubman) I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I guides my peoples from slavery to freedom.

LEE: For more than 100 years, Tubman was credited with freeing 300 people. Maryland's historic marker honoring Tubman uses that number, but it's way off, according to Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson. She says the mistake originates from a book written in 1869.

KATE CLIFFORD LARSON: Sarah Bradford, who wrote the first biography, decided that - in her book, she says, Harriet doesn't remember how many people she rescued, but other people say she rescued 300 people in 19 trips. So it was manufactured way back.

LEE: And it stuck. Fast-forward to the mid-1960s. Tubman had been all but forgotten in Dorchester County, where she grew up. An Eastern Shore teenager wrote an article about her. It caught the eye of the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission, which was looking for ways to mark the 100th anniversary, and up went the marker with the incorrect 300 number preserved in cast iron. Douglas Mitchell is a Tubman descendant.

DOUGLAS MITCHELL: I allow for a bit of inaccuracy and incompleteness because history's a living thing, and it's evolving.

LEE: That evolving history now puts at 70 the number of people Tubman led to freedom. That came from Larson's research for her 2003 Tubman biography, "Bound For The Promised Land." Larson says the lower number in no way diminishes Tubman's legacy of freeing enslaved people. In fact, she says it makes Tubman's story more personal.

CLIFFORD LARSON: Who are they? They were her family, the people she loved. So if we can tell that story, then people can see themselves. If you were in her position, who would you go rescue - strangers? No. You're going to go and rescue the people you love.

LEE: Larson says the old sign needs to be taken down and replaced with one that's accurate. Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist for the state transportation department, says that should happen in a year or so. She says the state is working through a backlog of requests.

JULIE SCHABLITSKY: History has been, a lot of times, corrected. We do plan to take some of these signs down and replace them with more accurate information.

LEE: The Tubman marker also has her birth year wrong. It uses the outdated word slaves rather than enslaved, and it insinuates it's where she was born. Tubman was actually born more than 10 miles away. Douglas Mitchell says some people who live near the current marker don't want to give the birthplace up.

MITCHELL: People get emotionally attached to their narrative of history. The history is this, and that's the history that I'm going to go with, even when they're proven wrong.

LEE: Julie Schablitsky with the state transportation department says they are planning to put up a second marker at Tubman's birthplace. The original marker is on a farm where Tubman lived. Even with the inaccuracies, eastern shore historian Phil Hesser says that marker serves a purpose.

PHIL HESSER: It's a very good starting point for really understanding the dynamics of her story.

LEE: Hesser says the farmland there can serve as an exercise for people to think back to when Tubman lived there before she found her freedom. For NPR News, I'm John Lee reporting in Baltimore.

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John Lee
John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.