University of Maryland College Park renamed their Department of Women’s Studies program the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. (Courtesy Photo)

By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer

Barely two months into the tenure of the first Black president in the history of the University of Maryland-College Park, the state’s flagship university announced it will rename it’s women’s studies program after the historic figure who is synonymous with the underground railroad.  

The University of Maryland’s College of Arts and Humanities (ARHU) announced the Department of Women’s Studies will change its name to the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) according to a statement released on Sept. 3.  It is the only department nationally that offers a Black women’s studies minor, which is a joint program within the African American Studies Department. 

“The name change is an ongoing commitment that honors and celebrates the life and legacy of one of America’s greatest freedom fighters,” said Ruth Enid Zambrana, the interim chair of the department. 

In 2018, the department began collaborating with the descendants of Harriet Tubman to begin the process of changing the department’s name.  Ms. Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt, a great-niece of Tubman, was instrumental in leading the charge to rename the program and the University System of Maryland Board of Regents approved the change last June.  

“I am happy to know that the name change has been implemented,” said Wyatt. “This is the right time—the year of the woman, the year celebrating the suffragists and the year in which great change is happening to achieve equality and justice, something Aunt Harriet was an activist for during her time.”

  The retitle of the department is part of a series of new initiatives by the University’s new president  Dr. Daryl J. Pines.  Pines officially became the first African American President in school history on July 1 and according to the website is hoping to create a more inclusive environment at the University of Maryland. 

In addition to renaming the ARHU Dr. Pines has outlined plans for a coordinator for immigrant and undocumented student life, a task force on community policing and the addition of the common application for prospective students to express it’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Each initiative is important and noteworthy on its own,” Pines wrote for the website. “Together, with previous actions announced on July 1, they mark meaningful progress toward realizing our vision of a truly inclusive campus.” 

Tubman’s legacy will be a major component of the academic department’s curricula as well as a commitment to political advocacy and for those who have been socially and politically marginalized, according to their website. There are also plans to collaborate with Tubman’s family to establish a “Harriet Tubman Day,” which would be a national day of observance honoring her.  

 “By embodying Harriet Tubman’s name and legacy, we hope to empower future generations of scholars, advocates and worldwide leaders,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. 

  The WGSS department began in 1976 offering courses and undergraduate certificates, but has expanded into one of the nation’s leading women’s studies and LGBTQ programs, which now provides undergraduate and graduate programs. The program is well regarded for its unique concentration in Black feminist thought.

Tubman is believed to have been born around 1820 on a plantation in Dorchester County. She escaped slavery in 1849 and committed her life to lead other slaves to freedom. During the American Civil War, Tubman led an armed military in the liberation of 700 slaves in the Combahee River Raid. Tubman was also an original women’s rights advocate.                                                                                                          

Dr. Darryl J. Pines officially became the first Black President of the College Park Campus on July 1.  Pines replaced Wallace Loh who retired on June 30 and made his announcement via Twitter.

“It is my honor to announce a major milestone in our university’s history: the first honorific naming of an academic department at UMD, the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.”