In Harriet Tubman’s Maryland State, a New School Is Named After Her

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Montgomery County school officials named its new elementary school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, after Harriet Tubman, making it one of the first schools — and the only one in modern times. — in Tubman’s home state to have her namesake, according to a Maryland Department of Education school registry.

The Montgomery County School Board approved the school’s name at a board meeting earlier this month. School board chair Brenda Wolff called it an honor to be part of the process that nominated the school for Tubman, whom Wolff called his “sheroine”.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” Wolff said.

Historians say the famous abolitionist was born in Madison, Maryland, in 1822. She spent the first 27 years of her life on two plantations before escaping slavery in Philadelphia in 1849, according to Linda Harris, director events and programs at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Dorchester County. She returned to Maryland in 1850, some nine to ten months later, after hearing that her enslaved niece was to be sold. Tubman returned to Maryland 13 more times to guide 70 slaves to freedom.

“She is the only one we know of who has returned that many times anywhere on the Underground Railroad,” Harris said.

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Tubman is credited with helping abolitionist John Brown orchestrate the raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va. During the Civil War, she worked as a spy for the Union Army, gathering intelligence behind Confederate lines among enslaved blacks. She was the first woman to successfully plan and lead a military expedition during the Civil War.

“Everybody knows his general story, but they don’t know a lot of the specifics,” Harris said. “And the common thread is his desire to help others.”

The school’s nomination process began in March, after the board passed a resolution that recommended three names: Kelley Park Elementary School, Celia Cruz Elementary School, and Cesar Chavez Elementary School. A 13-person committee was assembled by the school’s principal, Cavena J. Griffith, to decide on the school’s official name.

Throughout the process, the group came up with two other potential names: Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School and Lucille Bridges Elementary School. In a community poll, a majority voted for Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School as their first or second choice.

Board members formally approved Tubman’s name at a May 10 meeting.

During a presentation to the school board about the chosen name, Griffith explained how Tubman’s legacy aligns with the five core values ​​of the school system of learning, relationships, fairness, respect and excellence.

“Harriet R. Tubman made the decision to risk her freedom and her life by returning to Maryland to free countless enslaved black or African Americans,” Griffith said in her board presentation.

Griffith added that the nomination process took place in March, which is Women’s History Month. It also coincided with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan naming 2022 “the year of Harriet Tubman”, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth.

“It’s truly inspiring to think about how we can follow the same path she did, where she forged her indelible legacy of freedom,” Griffith said.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) said the presentation left her “a little tearful,” due to the thoroughness of Tubman’s story and the values ​​of the school system.

“I’m very, very proud to support this theme choice,” Smondrowski said.

Recognized as a black liberator, Harriet Tubman was also a brilliant spy

The school is expected to open its doors to students for the 2022-23 school year.

When it opens, it will be its only namesake school in Maryland, according to public school listings. (DC has Harriet Tubman Elementary School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.)

But it’s not the first school in the state to bear his name. In 1949, Harriet Tubman School opened as the only all-black high school in Howard County until it closed through desegregation in 1965.

Members of the Howard County community, led by former students of the school, began organizing in 2004 to preserve it. In 2018, ownership of the historic building was transferred from Howard County Public Schools to county government, for reuse the site as an educational and cultural centre.

Bessie Bordenave, 78, graduated in 1962. She said everyone at school was like family. It was a special place and a good school, she said.

“After it closed, we decided that something really needed to be done for the school,” Bordenave said.

She is now President of the Harriet Tubman Foundation and Chair of the Harriet Tubman School Advisory Board. The building is set to reopen in July, with an arts hall, youth center and recreated classrooms from when the Tubman School was in operation.

Bordenave added that it was good that another school in Tubman’s home state was named after him.

Back in Montgomery County, Wolff said she thinks the school will send a message of success to students — especially black students — in the district.

“It gives you hope for what’s possible,” Wolff said.

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