Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial, New York City
The recently discovered “Record of Fugitives” at Columbia University Libraries documents that Harriet Tubman brought fugitive slaves to Sydney Howard Gay’s office in New York City twice in 1856, once in May and then in November. “In 1855 and 1856, Gay, the editor of the weekly abolitionist publication, the National Anti-Slavery Standard and a key operative in the underground railroad in New York City, meticulously recorded the arrival of fugitive slaves at his office. . . . Gay interviewed the fugitives, who numbered well over two hundred men, women, and children and recorded their stories.” This is an important archival source as it provides evidence of Tubman’s work in the city.
New York City’s connection to Tubman runs deep because of this history and the lore of Tubman moving through the city with fugitive slaves. In 2001, City Council members proposed and later approved the renaming of a prominent intersection in Harlem to Harriet Tubman Square/Triangle, formed at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard at West 122nd Street.
In large part this site was selected because it was an eyesore and because some argue “the intersection was part of the Underground Railroad.” At approximately the same time, former Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields issued a call for proposals to hire an architect and sculptor for the $2.8 million Tubman memorial project to expand and landscape the traffic island and locate a significant memorial in the space.
“The Record of Fugitives,” Book 2, page 8, 1856. Sydney Howard Gay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries, Columbia University, New York, New York. Accessed April 5, 2018. https://exhibitions.library.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/fugitives/record_fugitives.
J. Zamgba Brown, “Harriet Tubman’s Legacy Gets Square Deal,” New York Amsterdam News, March 15, 2001, page 10, and Frank Lombardi, “Harriet Tubman Sq. Plan Goes To Council,” NY Daily News, March 14, 2001, accessed April 5, 2018, http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/boroughs/harriet-tubman-sq-plan-council-article-1.910128.