Revitalizing Public Space
In the 1850s, the South End of Boston was originally conceived as a neighborhood of townhouses for wealthy merchants laid out on a park model of residential squares. Instead, the wealthy flocked to the upscale Back Bay neighborhood and the South End became a working-class immigrant and African American neighborhood. Starting in the 1960s the South End began to witness gradual gentrification. Eventually rising rents and increasing property taxes changed the demographics of the South End. Today, it is predominantly an affluent upper-middle-class neighborhood.
From 1993-2000, the City of Boston invested $3.2 million to improve open spaces in the South End. During this period, the city allotted monies for Harriet Tubman Square to receive a “ground level facelift,” and the Browne Fund, the Henderson Foundation, and the New England Arts Foundation provided grants for a statue memorializing Harriet Tubman, Step on Board. Through this open space plan, the city set out to reclaim and reinvent “passive scenic spaces” into vital community gathering places. Harriet Tubman Square and Step on Board were part of this larger revitalization effort.
Cunningham’s multi figure statue stands at the entrance to the triangular park; Emancipation, a statue of two semi-nude figures by Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), resides at its center. Originally, Fuller created her plaster in 1913 for the National Emancipation Exposition, which was held in New York City at the Twelfth Regiment Armory at Sixty-second Street near Broadway. Fuller made a monument described as “Humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children, who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into the world, unafraid.” The exposition was the largest single celebration of the emancipation in the North and Fuller’s sculpture took center stage at the fair.
In 1998 the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston who co-owned Emancipation suggested the work be cast in bronze and installed with Step on Board. The funders agreed: Emancipation was repaired, cast, and permanently situated in Harriet Tubman Square. Together Emancipation and Step on Board represent the “South End Emancipation Memorial.” The contrast between the two statues is marked. Fuller’s Emancipation is steeped in nineteenth-century modes of representation including the semi-nude bodies of the man and woman who are assisted to freedom by an allegorical representation; Cunningham's Step on Board focuses on a fully in control, proud Harriet Tubman, a self-proclaimed emancipator.
At the dedication of the revitalized park on June 20, 1999, Cunningham remarked on the significant meaning of the South End Emancipation Memorial for her and for those who commissioned the work: “two African American female artists have done these two sculptures. It is important that African Americans are put in positions to make our own statements about our emancipation, our heroes, and our heroines.”
“Community Open Space and Recreation Mission: The Neighborhoods,” Open Space and Recreation Plan, 2002-2006, Boston Parks and Recreation Department, pages 217-219, https://www.cityofboston.gov/Parks/openspace/2002_2006.asp
 Ibid., 220.
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: The Sixth Annual Conference,” The Crisis 8, no. 2 (June 1914): 82; and Renée Ater, Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 73-100.
“Commemorative Program for the Unveiling of Emancipation by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Step On Board by Fern Cunningham,” June 29, 1999, Harriet Tubman Square, Boston, Massachusetts. See also Joe Yonan, “Tubman Leads the Way Again: Sculpture to be First of Woman on City Land,” Boston Globe, April 24, 1997, and Cindy Rodriquez, “A Long-Overdue Tribute: Harriet Tubman Statue will be First of a Black Woman on City Property,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1999.
Gloria Negri, “Her Message Cast In Bronze: In This Sculptor's Work, the Main Theme is Emancipation,” Boston Globe, July 4, 1999.