Tubman statue underscores black history in South End
For former South End resident Paul Deere, Harriet Tubman Square was part of the landscape in the then largely black community.
"I went to nursery school at the Harriet Tubman House when it was on Holyoke Street, two blocks from here," Deere said, standing in the newly renovated Harriet Tubman Park.
"A lot of us here in the South End went to that school. We grew up learning about Harriet Tubman in my house."
Now, with a larger-than-life statue of the pre-eminent abolitionist and emancipator fronting the apex of the triangular shaped park, Harriet Tubman is a permanent fixture in a neighborhood that has witnessed its share of changes.
A crowd of an estimated 200 South Enders, past and present, turned out under the hot Sunday afternoon sun for the unveiling of the newly-created Harriet Tubman statue, by sculptor Fern Cunningham, and a newly cast version of "Emancipation," a 1913 statue by sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller.
"We are here today because for over 350 years, Africans in the Americas were slaves," said state Rep. Byron Rushing. "Because not one of these Africans desired that condition. Whenever they were able to rebel, collectively or individually, they did. We are here to honor the leaders who led to the emancipation of Africans in the Americas."
The small park, bounded by Columbus Avenue and Pembroke Street, was named Harriet Tubman Square in 1958, when the South End neighborhood was still the center of the city's black community. Now, though the park is surrounded by pockets of people of color, the area is better known for its million dollar duplex condominiums than its history as a black neighborhood.
The installation of the statues and the renovation of the park came about through the efforts of a committee of activists who over three years raised $463,000 in foundation grants and city of Boston funds.
"This has been a labor of love from the first meeting in July of 1996 until today," said United South End Settlements Executive Director Frieda Garcia, who led the committee.
The crowd that turned out for Sunday's unveiling was a melange of the South End's past and present; blacks with roots in the South End, members of the arts community who came to show their appreciation for sculptors past and present, long-time white South Enders and a smattering of arrivistes.
The Tubman and Warrick Fuller statues provide an anchor to the history of the black community in the South End, noted artist Napoleon Jones-Henderson, who lived in the South End in the mid '70s.
"Coming up here to see Alan Rohan Crite, I would always pass by this park," he said. "Leon Brathwaite's framing studio was just up the street.
"Now this park has become a point of interest. This will be a monument to the correction of African American history. It shows Harriet not just as a person, but Harriet with the people."
The instillation of the Tubman statue also has great historical significance for the city as a whole, Mayor Thomas Menino noted.
"[Tubman] is still making history because she is the first woman commemorated with a statue in a park in the city of Boston," he told the crowd. "It's about time. Sometimes we in Boston take a little bit longer to do things."
The Warrick Fuller statue, completed in 1913, had its last public showing in 1937. The artist is known for her realistic, dignified portrayals of African American subjects at a time when blacks were often depicted in demeaning ways.
"She was ahead of the black aesthetic in her art," Jones-Henderson said. "She made very political statements at a time when no one made statements one way or another in her art."
The "Emancipation" statue depicts a man and women, partially clad to symbolize their self reliance, emerging upright from the trunk of a tree, their gazes fixed defiantly at the future. It contrasts with other more famous depictions of emancipation, which show President Abraham Lincoln freeing shackled and cowering slaves.
After 60 years in the Fuller family garage in Framingham, the plaster piece was cast and now occupies the northeast end of the park, opposite the Tubman statue. The statue is one of only several of Fuller's that have been cast in Bronze, noted cultural historian Steven Jones, who traveled from Philadelphia to witness the unveiling.
"There aren't many other major places to view her work, because she did not have the opportunity to cast her work in bronze," Jones said.
Photo (Fern Cunningham unveils her new statue of Harriet Tubman)