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Get on Board: The Legacy of Harriet Tubman

by Gary Bailey
Thursday May 5, 2016

Get on Board: The Legacy of Harriet Tubman

Every summer, several people gather in a park located in a small triangular park at Columbus Avenue between West Newton and Pembroke Streets in Boston's picturesque and historic South End neighborhood in front of a 10-foot bronze statue of famed abolitionist and freedom-fighter Harriet Tubman, by artist Fern Cunningham. Important to note is that this particular statue was the first statue on city-owned property honoring a woman in Boston .

Tubman, who had spent the first 28 years of her life toiling in the household and fields of the Maryland plantation where she had been born, she escaped when the plantation's owner died, following the North Star and stopping at various Underground Railroad 'stations' along the 90-mile journey to Pennsylvania.

For her efforts freeing other enslaved people famed Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called her "Moses" for she, like the Moses of the Old Testament, returned to lead numbers of other people out of bondage, to freedom and the "promised land". 'Mother Moses' is depicted standing erect and out in front of a small group of people of African descent who appear tired and frightened. While she appears steadfast, resolute, and unafraid with a Bible clutched in one hand and her other hand extended outwards gesture in a gesture as if she is pointing the way to freedom to those who surround her.

As I sat in the park last Wednesday afternoon the 20th April , after Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury announced to the nation that this same Harriet Tubman, the woman who had escaped her captivity and who time after time would then risk her new found freedom to liberate other enslaved people would replace former President, Andrew Jackson, himself a holder of slaves, on the front of the $20 bill; making her the first American woman to adorn US paper currency in more than a century. I was reminded of the words of another great foot soldier for justice and freedom Nelson Mandela who once said "There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires."

As I sat there in the park I recalled watching Viola Davis, when she won Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for her role in "How to Get Away with Murder" at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards show, making her the first black woman to win the award begin her remarks with the following quote by Harriet Tubman:

"In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn't reach them no-how. I always fell before I got to the line"

As a member of the board of Park, whose president is renowned Boston activist Frieda Garcia and as the great grandchild of people who were themselves enslaved, this yearly ritual of reverently and gently washing, waxing and buffing the statue, both in an effort to protect it from the harsh elements of city life, and to also ensure that its majesty is not diminished. The significance of the contribution made by 'Mother Moses' to so many by during her lifetime, and beyond, is certainly not lost on me. I am overwhelmed with gratitude as I wash her feet and outstretched hands and as I gently wash her face find myself saying softly into her ear "thank you"; and that I along with many others remember and are grateful because you dared to take your freedom from those who held you captive and also worked to free so many others as well.

Over the course of the past week anonymous individuals have visited the park and placed bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue. Someone even placed a dozen long stem roses in Tubman's hand, held high as in a triumphant gesture. As a nation and as a society do we still have much work before us to do - without question , we do - but that Wednesday, for a brief moment Tubman's words echoed in my head as I sat in a park in Boston, dedicated to her legacy of courage and steadfastness: "Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

The decision announced on Wednesday to add Harriet Tubman's face to our nation's most traded piece of currency to some, might seem a mere gesture to some , but to others of us it holds very special meaning and significance.

Thank you 'Mother Moses' for once again, leading the way!


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