Auburn Celebrating Harriet Tubman’s Life As Free Woman For 200th Birthday
In SummaryHistory often tells the story of Harriet Tubman as an abolitionist with the Underground Railroad, but the city of Auburn is telling the story of her life as a free, "ordinary woman who did extraordinary things."
Auburn, a city in Cayuga County, New York, is known for its arts and culture, but also for its deep connections to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
As Tubman’s 200th birthday approaches, Auburn is gearing up for a bicentennial celebration honoring her legacy and her life after slavery. The famed Black figure is discussed at lengths in relation to topics like fighting slavery and the Underground Railroad, but the history of her life after freeing other slaves is rarely taught.
According to the National Park Service, Tubman purchased a home in Auburn from Secretary of State William Seward in 1859. She later established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, a place where she took in African Americans who were elderly, sick and mentally disabled and cared for them for free.
Tubman also married her second husband, Nelson Davis, at a church in Auburn in March 1869. She died in the city on March 10, 1913, and she’s buried in Auburn at Fort Hill Cemetery.
The city has kept Tubman’s legacy alive by turning her home, the church where she married her husband, frequent stops along the Underground Railroad and the cemetery where she’s buried into museums or landmarks. To honor Tubman and the 200th anniversary of her birth, the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center and the City of Auburn Historic and Cultural Sites Commission are planning an array of events and programs to take place from Harriet Tubman Day on March 10 through September.
“With the opening of the Heritage Center, we started out in 2019 with Harriet Tubman Day,” Courtney Kasper, the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center’s visitor experience manager, said. “Moving into 2020 we did Harriet Tubman weekend… Then we moved virtually to Harriet Tubman week, but when you’re talking about 2022, it’s the bicentennial of Harriet Tubman’s birth.”
Tubman was born in Maryland, but Auburn realizes its importance in her life. “While we are not the place where she was born, we are the important half part, the last 54 years of her life story, here in Auburn,” Kasper said. The center wants to remind the Auburn community of Tubman’s legacy in the town while also attracting visitors to go immerse themselves in the rich history present.
While Tubman’s legacy is often celebrated throughout Auburn, the local school system did not always teach students about Tubman’s connection to the town. Dr. Rhoda Overstreet-Wilson, a school board member and community activist born and raised in Auburn, said it’s important to know about Tubman’s life other than its connections to slavery.
“Although we may celebrate Harriet Tubman every year, this year there is a big spotlight and the spotlight isn’t just connected to her connections to the Underground Railroad,” Overstreet-Wilson said. “It’s beyond that. It is the fact that this city, this community and those historical associations and societies are banding together to tell her true story.”
It wasn’t until she was out of the school that Overstreet-Wilson learned about Auburn and the importance it played in Tubman’s legacy. “It’s encouraging that my grandchildren will have the opportunity to learn more about this than I did,” she said. “Maybe they’ll do it in school and not become a full-grown woman before [understanding] her life and legacy is bigger than any story that could be told in any classroom around here. Her importance is much bigger than any story that’s actually already been told about her and I’m glad that Auburn is owning it.”
Kasper said Tubman’s work freeing slaves became the singular thing she was remembered for, but she did so much more. “Part of the story is in Maryland. That’s part of the story that we’re used to. The Underground Railroad story and that’s been romanticized to a point where that is what people automatically associate when they hear Harriet Tubman,” Kasper said. “It’s really important to share her story as a woman. To share who she was as a woman and those things she did in this place that was her chosen free home.”
The hope is that visitors learn that Tubman was, as Kasper said, “an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things” as the events attempt to show the historical figure as a human being.
Karen Kuhl, the director for tourism in Cayuga County, New York, became more inspired by Tubman with the more she learned about her life in Auburn. “I am inspired by Harriet Tubman and all she was and like everybody else, I knew she was an amazing Underground Railroad conductor and that she accomplished unimaginable fetes just from that,” Kuhl said. “But, the more I learned about her and the more I learned of her as an individual living here in Auburn and the woman she became, that’s what truly inspires me.”
Like many of us, Tubman was a regular person who experienced trauma, loss, and heartache, but she did not let it stop her from doing incredible things, like being an activist and a philanthropist. In order for society to view her this way, we have to get past viewing her singularly as the way we see her in the popular photo of her in old age in the rocking chair.
There will be several events for community members and visitors to participate in, including panel discussions, exhibits, a memorial service, a birthday ceremony and a reunion for her descendants. The sculpture Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom will also be on display over the summer after traveling across the country.
All events will be live streamed for those who cannot attend in person. For more information about the events and Tubman’s connections to Auburn, visit the bicentennial celebration website here.