Look Back: The Unrealized Potential Of The Harriet Tubman Home | History

September 2, 2007

Progress is stalled on renovations at the Harriet Tubman Home, a site that one travel industry expert has said is in dire need of improvement.

A sign greeting visitors to the house currently indicates that attractions include the Home for the Aged, Tubman’s Home, and the ruins of John Brown’s Infirmary. But while people are allowed to tour the Home for the Aged, Tubman’s home is not tourist-friendly (people can look out the windows) and the ruins aren’t included in the current tour.

The current visitor experience is supposed to change. Harriet Tubman Home Inc. has taken the first steps to restore the brick house Tubman lived in and the barn behind it. However, work is currently on hold as organization leaders contact companies to conduct a hazardous materials removal assessment, said site manager the Rev. Paul G. Carter.

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Officials want to restore the property’s structures and create an attraction that people can tour inside. Site leaders also aim to make other improvements, such as creating interactive displays, revamping exhibits, displaying information about Tubman’s life, and including more information about her dealings with local people.

A survey of tourism sites conducted by Randall Travel Marketing Inc. investigated attractions around Cayuga County in 2006. These were compared to another regional market research study in 2001.

In 2001, the research team reported their experiences at the Tubman Home as “the worst museum-visiting experience we’ve had in 20 years of experience in the tourism industry.”

The team went on to report that they could not recommend the site.

In Randall’s 2006 appraisal, the researchers said the photos and other tapestries needed better interpretation. The report stated that it had “great potential” but needed the help of people who understand performances, tourism and creating a visitor experience.

Cater said changes have been made following these reports, but he forwarded specific details to Board President and CEO Karen Hill. She, however, referred the questions to Carter.

Tax records for the year ending December 31, 2005 report that only three of the 37 directors live in Auburn or Syracuse. Ten directors live out of state. Hill has a Westchester phone number and lists Tubman Home as his address on the form. According to records, he worked 40 hours a week and was paid $50,000 in 2005.

While Carter has not received any feedback from the community about the planned renovations to the Tubman home and the ongoing rebuilding of the Nursing Home, the organization is planning an outreach to engage locals and bring the home to the forefront in the community. However, she was unable to provide details on how or when she would try to get more local help.

“I don’t think there is a lack of interest. At the time of… the formation of the incorporation, the (former director) decided to use the people that he had in his network,” Carter said.

Other local attractions have taken the opposite approach. The Cayuga Museum of Art and History, which contains the Case Research Laboratory, has a slate of board members made up of all residents of central New York, mostly from Cayuga County.

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When Theodore Case turned the lab over to the museum, he simply walked away, leaving his correspondence, research, instruments and work behind, executive director Eileen McHugh said.

Customers requesting a tour of the lab. The nonprofit museum doesn’t have the staff to keep the lab open, so people have to ask for tours, she said.

Thousands of people come to the Genesee Street location just to get a glimpse of the lab, McHugh said.

External events have also piqued interest in Case. The National Film Registry added one of Case’s test films. And there was the release of the DVD “Jazz Singer”, which contains a documentary related to the struggle to combine sound and film and analyzes a lot of Case.

Similarly, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book “Team of Rivals” raised awareness of the role of William Seward, whose Auburn home is also a museum.

“Something like that spreads to other sites,” McHugh said.

As visitors arrive, they ask about other attractions in Auburn.

“All of us are very aware of cross-promotion,” he said. Visitors will tell other people about their experiences when they return home, he added.

The entire organization has the same basic goals: to educate.

Patrons of the Harriet Tubman Home begin at a visitor’s center, where they sit in rows of folding chairs and watch a documentary depicting Tubman’s life. The movie kicks off the hourly tours.

Informative plaques, drawings, photos referring to slavery, brands, other famous African-American leaders line the walls.

After the documentary, a volunteer guides people through the Home for the Elderly, one of three attractions promised on the sign attached to the visitor center.

Carter said she wants people to understand more about Tubman as a determined, creative and innovative woman.

“(They should have) a better understanding of why Harriet Tubman was so adamant about keeping a role in the Underground Railroad and putting her life on the line and leading as many people to freedom as she could,” he said.

From the visitor center to the Home for the Aged, people can see the brick house where Tubman lived and which they plan to renovate.

People can walk through the restored Nursing Home to get a sense of what Tubman’s life might have been like. Much of the furniture is from the time period they are trying to replicate, but the Tubman family donated a variety of objects.

But unlike Seward House or Case Lab, Tubman did not leave a legacy that can be traced back to material goods.

Another historic site in Tubman has also faced that challenge. Donald Pinder is president of the Center for Education and Learning of the Harriet Tubman Organization at Tubman’s birthplace, Cambridge, Maryland.

The two places share a common obstacle, Tubman’s lack of possessions. Tubman had two oxen that he would take with him to different places to work in the fields, Pinder said. Slaves had no possessions except necessities. Even the slave cabins they lived in did not belong to him. They had nothing valuable that could be passed down from generation to generation, he said.

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However, Carter sees Tubman’s destitute life not as a handicap, but as a compelling part of her story.

The house fell into disrepair and was not used in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Anyone with common sense knows that the Seward House has been taken care of, that the Harriet Tubman House was sold to someone else and that everything was destroyed, sold or given to the family,” Carter said.

He also noted the economic difference between the two households, with Tubman living out his final years in poverty, and compared to the wealth enjoyed by the Seward family.

“You are dealing with two different situations together. There you have a great contrast. That’s one (thing) that makes the story more interesting,” Carter said.

Visitors to the Maryland site can view a timeline of events and learn about where Tubman was born and how she began working at age 5. There is information about an injury she sustained in a town store and later about her two marriages. He also, of course, touches on his escape and his work with the Underground Railroad. He offers glimpses of books and stories that tell what he did, and some articles about his move to St. Catharines and Auburn, and his home and group home in Auburn.

That site also has his last will and testament leaving everything to Thompson African Methodist Episcopal Church in Auburn as trustees of his estate.

The Cambridge Museum and Gift Shop offer a fixed location for a museum, but they also have booking tours. Someone from the museum boards a bus and travels with the group from one place to another to places of historical importance. These include the plantation where she grew up, the places where her parents lived, separately as they had different owners.

“It gives you a general history of the area, and part of this (region) hasn’t changed in 300 years. It’s modernized… but the fields and what’s being planted hasn’t changed, and some landscapes haven’t changed,” Pinder said.

Pinder went to Tubman’s home in September 2006. He also visited her final resting place under a tree in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery.

“When you tell a story if you’ve been there, it’s already more exciting. … They say ‘I followed in his footsteps,’” Pinder said.

I was amazed to follow in his footsteps at Auburn.

“I related it to the grandparents after they died and you go back to the house and you don’t see them. It brings back memories: how they did things and how they felt,” Pinder said. “It was nice to be where she was and to move in the same circles.”

— Compiled by David Wilcox

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