Gazing across the Detroit River and the skyline of Windsor, Ontario from a high-rise condominium in downtown Detroit, Rosa Parks often spoke about how the Underground Railroad heroically ran slaves into Canada.
“That’s where Harriet Tubman found freedom”, she told me one afternoon when I was working on my 2000 biography Rosa Parks: A Life. I was surprised at how encyclopedic Parks was about Tubman and how frustrated she was that the brave conductor of the Underground Railroad and early champion of women rights had been marginalized in history textbooks.
On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at the unveiling of a bronze statue of Parks on a black granite pedestal in Statuary Hall.
Mrs. Parks would have been more embarrassed than flattered. She was an extremely self-deprecating woman. What would have truly perturbed her was that Obama has yet to issue an executive order to create the Harriet Tubman National Monument. The paperwork is ready. It just needs the president’s signature.
Mrs. Parks enjoyed noting that she was born in February 1913 and Tubman died just a month later in March. She felt that the freedom struggle baton had been passed on to her from her all-seasons hero.
The National Monument deal which Obama should sign — like the one he did in October 2012 for Latino human rights activist Cesar Chavez in Keene, Calif. — would have units in both New York (Auburn) and Maryland (adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge). All the leading elected politicians in those states — Cuomo, Schumer, Gillibrand, Cardin, Mikulski and O’Malley — are for the federal preservation of the Tubman sites.
Why shouldn’t we protect such historical heirlooms as Tubman’s home and burial site? Sequestration and budget cuts to the Interior Department are no excuse to government delinquency. Shouldn’t the National Park Service interpret the history of the Underground Railroad?
On this National Day of remembering Sister Rosa we should also honor Mother Harriet. Call or write the White House and urge the president to pick up his pen on behalf of history. Only if Tubman were properly honored by the American people would Parks be fully satisfied with being enshrined in the Capitol.
Douglas Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University and author of “Rosa Parks: A Life”.
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