Harriet Tubman in the Memorial Landscape
This section of the digital exhibit concentrates on three memorials to Harriet Tubman and the public spaces in which they reside:
✪ Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom in Wilmington, Delaware;
✪ Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial in New York City; and
✪ Step on Board in Boston, Massachusetts.
The monuments exemplify the ways in which artists used nineteenth-century texts and photographs as primary source material in conceptualizing their sculptures.
Several forces have determined the general public’s understanding of Tubman. Unable to read or write, Tubman conveyed her life story to Sarah H. Bradford who wrote two influential biographies about her. In 1869, Bradford penned her first biography of Tubman entitled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Hastily assembled, Bradford later revised and published it in 1886 as Harriet: The Moses of Her People. Based on interviews with Tubman, Bradford created an image of her as larger than life, working alone as the conductor on the Underground Railroad, the “Black Moses.” Bradford inflated the number of trips and fugitive slaves that Tubman helped to escape from the Eastern Shore in Maryland, and she exaggerated aspects of Tubman’s story or simply omitted details that were contradictory. With her biographies, Bradford contained and concealed Tubman.
Yet, Tubman participated in the process in real ways. Jean Humez argues for seeing Tubman’s deep engagement in the telling of her life story. She writes, “Tubman clearly exerted significant control over the shape of the text through choosing which stories to tell and how to tell them.” Bradford's biographies continue to influence our understanding of Tubman, even in the twenty-first century, despite what we know to be misinformation from Bradford and the larger-than-life stories that Tubman repeated for public audiences.
Nineteenth-century image-makers have also had an impact on our visual understanding of Tubman. They photographed her as an older woman: tiny, severe, and unsmiling. Born in 1822, Tubman was twenty-eight when she conducted her first mission on the Underground Railroad in 1850, a young woman in her prime not the often aged figure we see in photographs and engravings. She was also a woman of many disguises who was able to transform herself beyond recognition.
In deploying Bradford’s biographies and nineteenth-century photographs of Tubman, contemporary artists have recreated Tubman as a singular African American woman, superhuman in strength and determination. Historian Milton Sernett states that Tubman “may be America’s most malleable icon,” a remembered and mediated Tubman, steeped in myth but based on a historical “factual core.” Sculptors visualized the iconic Tubman, celebrating the heroic aspects of her life and her missions on the Underground Railroad. City and state governments, non-profit organizations and businesses, and private citizens and communities have inserted her presence into varied public spaces “to honor her memory by taking pride in place.”
Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, NY: W. J. Moses, Printer, 1869), electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html and Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886), electronic edition, Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/harriet/harriet.html.
Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Madison: Univerisity of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 6.
Chantal N. Gibson and Monique Silverman, “Sur/Rendering Her Image: The Unknowable Harriet Tubman,” RACAR: revue d’art canadienne 30, no. 1 / 2 (2005): 25-38.
Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.