Daily Plant Masthead

Volume XXIII, Number 4831
Tuesday, Nov 18, 2008

Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial Sculpture Is Dedicated In Harlem

Photo by Malcolm Pinckney

On Thursday, November 13, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe joined Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin, Department of Design and Construction Commissioner David J. Burney, former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Congressman Charles Rangel, and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Curator Christopher Moore to dedicate a memorial sculpture of Harriet Tubman in Harlem. The memorial, commissioned through the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Percent for Art program, was created by the renowned sculptor Alison Saar.

The $2.8 million, multi-agency project, which included the landscaping of a formerly barren traffic triangle, was championed by former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Designed by Quennell Rothschild and Partners 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.

“Alison Saar’s Swing Low, a memorial to Harriet Tubman, is a wonderful addition to the City’s collection of public monuments in the ‘Harlem Gateway’ area, from 110th to 125th Streets,” said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “Thanks to our partners at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Department of Design and Construction, the Department of Transpiration, and a generous funding allocation from former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, what was once a deserted traffic triangle is now a destination spot for residents and visitors alike. This sculpture is not only a memorial to an historic figure; it is a compelling work of art and source of historical knowledge and inspiration for all who pass by.”

“Swing Low is an important commemoration of Harriet Tubman’s fight against slavery, and is fast becoming an icon for the community,” said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin. “The Percent for Art program integrates artists into design planning for City spaces, and Alison Saar’s extraordinary sculpture on this site proves what is possible when contemporary art and smart civic architecture come together.”

“As former Manhattan Borough President, I am proud to have lead the initiative in championing this important piece of art by Alison Saar, and am grateful to the Departments of Parks, Cultural Affairs, and Design and Construction for working together to make this day possible,” said C. Virginia Fields. “Harriet Tubman is one of this nation’s greatest icons, and Swing Low will serve as an inspiration to all who share Harriet Tubman’s vision of justice and equality.”

“I chose to depict Harriet Tubman not so much as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as a train itself, an unstoppable locomotive that worked towards improving the lives of slaves for most of her long life,” said artist Alison Saar. “I wanted not merely to speak of her courage or illustrate her commitment, but to honor her compassion. And in this monument I hope that the spirit of Harriet Tubman will inspire compassion in all of us here and for generations to come.”

The larger-than-life bronze sculpture 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.” In the sculpture, 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 sculpture and redesign of the triangle received a prestigious Public Design Commission Award for Excellence in Design in 2004. Carver Savings Bank has provided a lead gift towards establishing an endowment for the sculpture’s future maintenance.


“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.”

Sir Francis Bacon
(1561- 1626)

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