Tubman mural

Expressions of unity and peace are displayed Aug. 14, 2017, near a tile mosaic depicting Harriet Tubman on the south wall of Genesee Center in Auburn.

As Auburn looks to raise a statue of American icon and longtime resident Harriet Tubman, one of her biographers will visit the city to talk about places that have done so already.

Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, author of "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero," will give the talk Tuesday, Oct. 24, at the Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater. The next night, the historian will make an appearance at Auburn Public Theater to discuss the Tubman biography itself, as it happens to be the 2017 Cayuga Reads book selection.

Larson's Cayuga Museum talk is sponsored by the Harriet Tubman Boosters, the Harriet Tubman Downtown Memorial Committee and the city of Auburn. It'll serve as a fundraiser for the statue effort, which the committee launched in March. Its goal is to commission an artist to install a bronze sculpture of the abolitionist somewhere in downtown Auburn.

Larson said she'll discuss statues of Tubman that have already been raised. There are eight: in Harlem; Boston; Battle Creek, Michigan; Salisbury, Maryland; Dorchester County, Maryland; Bristol, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; and St. Catharines, Ontario. Efforts to raise more are underway in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall; Annapolis, Maryland; and Beaufort, South Carolina.

Though it was more than 150 years ago that Tubman led slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad and liberated hundreds more as a Civil War spy, the push to memorialize her is only a couple decades old, Larson said. She attributes that to her and other recently released books about Tubman, as well as rising interest in the Underground Railroad.

More than anything, though, Larson believes that behind the push to memorialize Tubman is a collective belief that it's simply her time.

"I think with a lot of historical characters and agents, there's a moment in time when they sort of burst on the scene if they haven't been celebrated," she said. "She rose to the top and really inspired people, and that's why I think so many people are paying attention to her, to honor her and also use her as a vehicle to show the diversity of our past."

As Auburn joins other places eyeing Tubman memorials, the push finds even more momentum in the the recent conversation about monuments to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and  Nathan Bedford Forrest, Larson said. Though some have suggested placing statues of Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other black icons alongside the racist ones, the historian is less compromising.

"I'm unequivocal about this: It is time that women and people of color are represented in all aspects of our lives where we commemorate our history and our legacy and what our nation stands for," she said. "To have Confederate statues standing to represent that is a disgrace to our country. I can't see that adding African-American statues and statues of women can make it OK to have those."

Larson continued, "When people say today that those statues represent Southern heritage, it infuriates me because I feel that historians like myself and others have done a bad job teaching Americans that there were also 4 million Southern enslaved people of color during the Civil War, and their heritage is not to have a statue of (future Ku Klux Klan leader) Nathan Bedford Forrest."

Larson will also touch on tributes to Tubman through other mediums, such as a Dorchester County mural painted by a descendant and an underwater tunneling machine in Miami given her name after a campaign by local Girl Scouts. The historian said it was symbolic to bestow Tubman's name upon a machine that "moves obstacles out of the way so they can get where they need to go."

Larson said she'll also talk Tuesday about what she believes are the best ways to memorialize Tubman.

Monuments that depict her as not just a hero but a human do her memory a service, Larson said. She favors statues that acknowledge Tubman's youth, family and womanhood over the frail, elderly "Mother Tubman" or "Aunt Harriet." Harlem's statue, depicting a young Tubman dragging tree roots out of the ground as she strides forth, is "remarkable in its power and interpretation," Larson said.

The author believes the selection of "Bound for the Promised Land" as the 2017 Cayuga Reads book will support that dimensionalization of Tubman's memory. Larson was "really grateful and happy" the biography was selected by the countywide program, which assigns the Cayuga County community a book to read and discuss together every year.

When Seymour Library and the Tubman Boosters bring Larson to Auburn Public Theater Wednesday, she'll talk about how research on Tubman's life continues, she said. "Bound for the Promised Land" is 14 years old, Larson noted, so the internet and the digitization of records have since produced much more knowledge about who the American icon was.

Larson hopes her message also inspires people to research their own family history, particularly people of color who may think they can't trace it past the Civil War.

"That research can be done so we can celebrate Harriet Tubman and all people who were so brave and determined to bring freedom, to take freedom, to ensure freedom for everyone," she said. "If we can appreciate and understand what people went through in the past to secure freedom, we won't be so cavalier about fighting to secure the gains we've made in 150 years."

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


Features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.