Saturday, March 2, 2013

Swing Low -- The Harriet Tubman Statue, West 122nd St

Alison Saar captured Harriet Tubman's determination in bronze -- photo

Araminta “Minty” Ross was born around 1822 in Dorchester, Maryland.  Determined and unwilling to submit to forced servitude, she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 with the help of the already-established Underground Railroad.

Having attained her personal freedom and safety, Ross turned her attention to those she left behind.   The Underground Railroad had already helped an estimated 100,000 slaves in their escape; now one of them would be a major force in assisting many more.  To help disguise her identity, Ross changed her name to Harriet Tubman. 

Throughout the next decade the resolute woman traveled back and forth into slave territory to help slaves escape along the Underground Railroad to their freedom in the North.  When the Civil War erupted, she offered her services as a nurse to the Union Army; then doubled her usefulness by working as a spy.  Her greatest triumph came on June 1, 1863 when she guided the Union Army to the Combahee Ferry in South Carolina.

A year earlier Tubman had been assigned by the Army to Beaufort to nurse former slaves on the Sea Islands.  As Union commanders planned the coastal river raids, including the Combahee, she was called upon to supply intelligence.  On the evening of June 1 Harriet Tubman was aboard the John Adams, one of three U.S. Navy ships carrying 300 soldiers—all former slaves.

As the Union ships passed the plantation fields along shore, hundreds of slaves dropped their farm tools and crowded the riverbank, pleading to be taken aboard.  The two-day operation was not only a military success, but resulted in the freeing of over 750 slaves.

The uneducated Harriet Tubman was called upon to make her first public address.   Union Brigadier General Rufus Saxton praised her; calling her the only woman to plan and lead a military raid.  Apparently unaware of Tubman’s name, the Commonwealth reported “Colonel Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation…. The colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation.”

The cause of black Americans did not die for Harriet Tubman with the end of the Civil War.  She continued to work not only for racial equality, but for women’s rights.  She toiled tirelessly for Woman’s Suffrage, working closely with Susan B. Anthony, and later became an activist for the homeless and physically disabled. 

In 1911 Harriet Tubman was “ill and penniless,” according to a New York newspaper.  The elderly woman, once such a powerful force in human rights, was now frail and helpless.  She was admitted into a rest home that was named in her honor.  She died there of pneumonia in 1913.

Harriet Tubman posed for a cabinet card photograph by H. B. Lindsley  in the  years after the  Civil War (the inscription was added after her death) -- Library of Congress
Nearly a century later, in 2007, the City of New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program sponsored a sculpture/memorial to Tubman.  The program was initiated by Mayor Edward Koch in 1982.  The law requires that one percent of the budget for City-funded construction is spent on artwork for City facilities.  Artist Alison Saar was given the commission to design the statue.  A 1978 alumna of Scripp’s College, she had studied African and Caribbean Art there.

Saar's powerful two-ton statue of Tubman titled "Swing Low," was placed in Harlem in a triangular traffic island at West 112nd Street, St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.  Dedicated on November 13, 2008, it emanates a sense of determination and fortitute.

Reflecting her work in the Underground Railroad, Tubman’s body pushes forward like a locomotive, her arms churning at her side like the pistons of the train wheels.  Her skirt is slightly pulled up at the front, showing her petticoats like the cow-catcher of a steam locomotive.  Tubman’s face stares straight forward in resolve to attain her goal.

Saar covered Tubman’s skirt with the faces of freed slaves.  Interspersed are common articles—an iron key representing their slavery, worn shoe soles, a padlock, shackles with a broken chain. A trail of roots stretch from the rear of Tubman’s skirt; a tradition of oppression uprooted and powerless thanks partly to the indefatigable efforts of one determined former slave who would not forget those she left behind.

Uprooting inequality and tyranny, Tubman marches forward -- photo
Immediately following the dedication of the statue came controversy concerning its orientation.  Harriet Tubman is striding resolutely southward.  Local residents complained that she should be heading northward—away from the tyranny of the South.  A petition of 1,000 signatures was sent to the City, calling for the statue to be turned around.

Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society said “It is just an outrage.”

The sculptor disagreed.  Alison Saar explained to Timothy Williams of The New York Times “She’s best known for her sojourns north, but what is most impressive to me are her trips south, where she risked her own freedom.”

Authors, historians, artists and residents still debate the statue’s geographic orientation today.  But Saar’s commanding memorial to an exceptional woman stands unquestioned.

No comments:

Post a Comment