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Chesapeake Insider

Deanna Mitchell

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Deanna Mitchell is the current superintendent of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. A native of Maryland, she has been dedicated to ensuring that the rich history of the Eastern Shore is not forgotten, and that the African American heritage of the region is not only recorded, but also cherished.

What piece of African American heritage do you wish more people knew of in the Chesapeake region?

At this time, in 2020, everyone should know of the legacy, not just of Harriet Tubman, but of those brave men and women from this region who came before her, and those who came after her, who paved the way for so many to understand the significance of her legacy as well as the historical and cultural resources of this region.  In addition, I do hope that through our efforts here at the historical park, we are able to dispel any misconception of what the Underground Railroad actually was.  Some folks believe that it was truly a railroad with a train that runaway slaves boarded to gain their freedom.  We emphasize the fact that it was a very sophisticated network of pathways and routes followed by enslaved people mostly on foot, where they received short-term shelter, food, clothing, and directions along the way as they sought freedom.  Waterways along the Chesapeake Bay proved to be helpful escape routes along the Underground Railroad.

How would you say African American heritage is tied to the Chesapeake region’s heritage as a whole?

You really can get a feel for what the Eastern Shore meant to the Indigenous Peoples who inhabited these lands long before Europeans settled here, and even those individuals that came over on slave ships from Africa beginning in 1619. The rich history of African American heritage can be experienced through the efforts of a number of state and regional sources who have come together in partnerships to preserve and protect this heritage for generations to come.  The National Park Service, Maryland State Parks, tourism offices for Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties, privately-owned historic sites, the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that stretches from Maryland to Pennsylvania, and a number of fine universities and non-profit organizations all provide for connection of the African American heritage to this region.  Descendants of slaves, abolitionists, and civil rights activists – some who are still alive today – help to contribute to the lasting impact of this rich heritage.  One key connection to the African American legacy were the strong, free, Black communities and churches, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by African Americans and still in existence today.

What challenges have you faced as an African-American woman in conservation?

Well, you know, I came to the National Park Service in 2005. I worked for a number of other agencies prior to that, but there is something special about the National Park Service. I have visited national parks long before becoming an employee in the National Park Service, and there's really nothing like that experience, whether it be in a natural park, or in a cultural park such as the one that we're in right now: The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, MD. Our mission in the National Park Service is to protect and preserve these wonderful places that have been protected through legislation, and as an African American in that role, I have embraced the challenge and find it to be  rewarding. I have found that the National Park Service is diverse and inclusive in many aspects of its operations, and as an African American, I was afforded the opportunity to seek and achieve the level of superintendency.  This achievement doesn’t mean that I'm sitting, you know, on top of a mountain,  but that my role and responsibility is entrusted to the organization, the resource, the staff, and the public.  As an African-American woman achieving this level of responsibility…not only is it awesome…but more importantly an example for many other people of color, young adults, and women to never give up on your goals and dreams.

What advice would you give to young people interested in conservation?

Never be afraid. Never be afraid to try something that you feel is outside your comfort zone.  When you limit yourself and you say "I think this is where I need to be,” you’re only going to be as successful as you can within those boundaries. You should never just “think” but “know” what you want to achieve.  Why not take a chance? Why not broaden your horizons? That is the only way you can learn truly about yourself and what is in your heart as well as learn from others. Yes, there will be roadblocks in front of you no matter what you strive for in life, but what really counts is your fortitude in proving yourself and jumping over or going around those roadblocks to get to the other side.  Just take that chance.

What is your favorite part of the Chesapeake region?

I believe my most special place on the Chesapeake Bay is where the Bay intersects with the lower basin or mouth of the Susquehanna River – my hometown where I was born and raised, Havre de Grace, MD.  In this small harbor town – translated from French to mean “harbor of grace,” – I literally grew up on the water. For me, no matter where I have lived throughout my life, I am always drawn to the "Beauty of the Bay.”  I feel very fortunate to have come full circle to be living back in Maryland, and also for the opportunity to further the rich legacy of one of our nation's true heroes, Harriet Tubman.

Yazan Hasan

Yazan is a Maryland native, and Anne Arundel county local that's been shaped by the Chesapeake Bay. Currently pursuing a degree in Environmental Science, he is passionate about working with disenfranchised communities on conservation, wetland ecology, and sustainability. He hopes to make our nature spaces accessible and enjoyable to all. Yazan has worked at Pickering Creek Audubon as an educator for grades K - 12, and at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as a filmmaker on a variety of topics including environmental policy, conservation, and green infrastructure. In his free time, Yazan is a freelance photographer and loves to spend time outdoors.

December 15, 2020

Main image: Deanna Mitchell, current superintendent of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. Burrell Communications photo.
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