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The life and times of Harriet Tubman, in artifacts

President Obama has signed the law that would create a new Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn. Among supporters of the law are some Syracuse University faculty and staff that have made Harriet Tubman's property a kind of classroom.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Douglas Armstrong, professor of anthropology at Syracuse University.

In a fourth floor lab of the university's Lyman Hall, pieces of the life of Harriet Tubman are carefully stored in a four-foot-tall metal cabinet. This is where anthropology professor Douglas Armstrong sifts through the artifacts from Tubman's house. Over the past 20 years, they've been unearthed during various digs on the famous abolitionists property in Auburn.

Armstrong says a fire burned down Tubman's original home. That fire allowed him and his students to find many surviving Tubman artifacts in a trench that was dug during construction of the home that stands today.

"They filled in the hole and in the process threw in all the broken, and burned, and charred glass and ceramics that were in the house," Armstrong says. "So we ended up serendipitously discovering that in the process."

Ellen Abbott

Armstrong says they've found whole pieces of china, glassware, buttons, medicine containers and a toothbrush in that trench -- and they all provide a picture of the life and times of Tubman.

Armstrong is hopeful a historic designation can paint a picture of the abolitionist not only as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as someone who was active in the women's rights movement in nearby Seneca Falls and ran a home for the aged.

"She continued on and kept working for others throughout her life," he says. "So her story in Auburn is 50 years of service to others beyond the point of emancipation. It is actually living life in freedom."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.