SCHENECTADY — A life-size bronze statue of Harriet Tubman and William Henry Seward commissioned by a group of Schenectady boosters to celebrate diversity and highlight a little-known friendship between the escaped slave and the statesman has undergone a trial by fire.
When a fast-moving blaze on Nov. 1, 2017, destroyed Dexter Benedict's barn that housed his foundry and sculpture studio in the Finger Lakes, everything was lost: clay, tools, equipment and several large-scale sculptures in progress.
The life-sized molds of Tubman and Seward, nearly completed, were twisted and ruined by the intense heat of the fire at his rural Yates County property, exacerbated by exploding propane tanks used in the foundry.
"I was in complete shock after the fire. Absolutely everything was destroyed," said Benedict, 74, who has been making monumental statues of historical figures for decades, including inventors Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz in Schenectady.
Benedict had to start over from scratch after the devastating loss. He built a new barn studio, purchased new equipment and resumed work after a forced hiatus of months. He pushed back the delivery dates of his sculpture commissions a year.
On May 17, a dedication ceremony will be held at the remade bronze statue of Tubman and Seward. It will be installed in front of the Schenectady County Library at the corner of Clinton and Liberty streets across from City Hall during a dedication ceremony.
"We are so grateful that Dexter decided to rebuild his studio and foundry and to start all over again," said Frank Wicks, an emeritus mechanical engineering professor of Union College. Wicks paid for half of Benedict's $62,000 commission fee and is soliciting donations to fund the balance. He refused to let the setback of the fire or other obstacles derail the sculpture project he passionately pursued for more than a decade.
Wicks, 79, taught at Union for 30 years before his retirement in 2018. He was well aware of the political legacy of Seward, who graduated from Union College in 1820 and served as New York governor, U.S. senator and secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Seward is perhaps best remembered for negotiating the purchase of the Alaskan Territory from Russia in 1867. His stature as a statesman grew as a result of Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 bestselling book, "Team of Rivals."
During a 2000 visit to the Seward House Museum in Auburn, Cayuga County, with his wife, Dawn, the couple happened upon the Harriet Tubman Home about a mile away. "We were surprised by the proximity and wanted to know why," Wicks recalled.
Seward, a staunch abolitionist, took a rather radical step in 1859 that cost him politically. He flouted the law and sold some of his property to Tubman on very favorable terms and helped Tubman, an escaped slave, set up a homestead there on the city's outskirts. The next year, Seward lost the presidential nomination of the Republican Party to Lincoln.
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1822. She escaped to the north and gained her freedom in 1849. She was an outspoken abolitionist who helped dozens of slaves escape bondage as a prominent "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. She was dubbed "the Moses of her people." The Underground Railroad included a stop in Albany's Arbor Hill at the Livingston Avenue home of Stephen and Harriet Myers. Seward financially supported the Myers' efforts in Albany.
In 1858, Tubman helped runaway slave Charles Nalle escape from his captors in Troy. She helped Nalle flee across the Hudson River to Watervliet, where Nalle was recaptured. Tubman helped him break free a second time and assisted his passage through Schenectady to safety in Niskayuna, before helping Nalle buy his freedom for $650.
After the Civil War, Tubman welcomed poor and elderly black people into her home in Auburn. She was in her early 90s when she died in 1913 and is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery, where Seward, who died in 1872 at age 71, is also buried.
"Biographies of Seward and Tubman include very little about their friendship," Wicks said. "We thought it was important to celebrate the ways in which their lives intersected and lessons we can take away today from them."
Although there are statues of Seward in several states, including New York and Alaska, the Tubman-Seward pairing is unique. "This shows the human side of Seward that goes beyond his political accomplishments," Wicks said.
Wicks was disappointed that Union College administrators were not receptive to installing the statue on campus, because Tubman did not attend the school. Wicks and fellow emeritus Union professors Carl George and Twitty Styles, who were key supporters, are pleased that it will end up in front of the public library.
The two friends from Auburn — Seward holding a walking stick and Tubman clutching a shepherd's staff — will be anchored to a rough-hewn slab of dolomite from a Mohawk Valley quarry. The simple inscription will read: "William Seward and Harriet Tubman. Leaders for freedom, diversity and friendship. Gift by the people for the people."
Wicks is proud of the fact that it will be the first statue of an African American in Schenectady.
Benedict praised the generous spirit of selflessness of his Mennonite neighbors, who helped the bronze statue of Tubman and Seward rise from the ashes. "The sculptures were given a new life and I think they came out even better the second time," the sculptor said.
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