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Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This larger-than-life bronze sculpture depicts abolitionist organizer and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), and stands at the crossroads of St. Nicholas Avenue, West 122nd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. Douglass once said of Tubman that except for John Brown, he knew of "no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people."

Born into slavery in Maryland around 1822, Tubman escaped in 1849 via the Underground Railroad, the network of places and people dedicated to helping slaves find their way to freedom in non-slaveholding communities. Settling first in Philadelphia, then Canada, Tubman spent ten years returning to Maryland at great personal risk, to guide scores of friends and family members to freedom. Determined to end slavery, she later served the Union Army as a scout, spy and nurse in the Civil War. Settling in Auburn, New York after the war, she continued campaigning for equal rights for women and African-Americans. Her humanitarian work, including caring for the sick, homeless and disabled of all races, resulted in the establishment of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in that community. She died in 1913 and was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn with semi-military honors.

The memorial, commissioned through the Department of Cultural Affairs' Percent for Art program, was created by African-American sculptor Alison Saar. The artist has depicted Tubman "not as the conductor of the Underground Railroad but as the train itself, an unstoppable locomotive,” the roots of slavery pulled up in her wake. Saar designed stylized portraits of "anonymous passengers" of the Underground Railroad in Tubman's skirt, some of which were inspired by West African "passport masks." Around the granite base of the monument are bronze tiles alternately depicting events in Tubman's life and traditional quilting patterns.

The $2.8 million, multi-agency project, which included the landscaping of a formerly barren traffic triangle, was sponsored by former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Designed by Quennell Rothschild and constructed by URS, the renovated triangle features paving blocks and roughly hewn granite to create a natural setting. Plantings native to both New York and Tubman's home state of Maryland represent the woods and terrain traveled by Tubman and her Underground Railroad passengers, providing a contemplative space in which to consider Tubman's legacy.

Thursday, Dec 30, 2010

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