Set in the mid-19th century, 2019 feature film “Harriet” tells the timeless and heroic story of one Araminta “Minty” Ross, a slave married to a freedman, John Tubman.
With an iron will forged in the cauldron of systemic oppression, and adopting a new name to remove the stain of enslavement, as Harriet Tubman, “Minty” went on to single-handedly free more than 70 slaves by carving out a clandestine corridor known as the Underground Railroad. With the support of 150 Black soldiers, the woman known as “Moses” also helped transport another 750 slaves to freedom. And she was a pioneer of the women’s right movement, including the right to vote.
All of that is settled fact, which assumes renewed relevance during the celebrated Black History Month of February.
But why, one might ask, is there a majestic statue of Harriet Tubman currently on outdoor display, for all to admire, in the Hudson River city of Peekskill?
The answer is that—apart from being a whistle stop for Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train ride, 160 years ago on Feb. 19—Peekskill’s place in American history includes being a safe haven along the route of the Underground Railroad. It was a strategic stopover that gave cover to human beings reclaiming their humanity and defiantly refuting the right of any other human being to own them as chattel.
The nine-foot-tall, 2,400-pound bronze artwork, entitled “Harriet Tubman—The Journey to Freedom,” by sculptor Wesley Wofford, is touring the nation. Artfully fashioned to simulate kinetic motion, it depicts Tubman leading an enslaved young girl to freedom.
It’s a testament to the powers that be at the Peekskill Business Improvement District (BID), led by president Brian Fassett, that they were able to lay claim to the statue for a 10-week stay in the city, before it moves on to its next destination—Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
The statue can be seen through Sunday, Feb. 28, in all its glory at the corner of Central Avenue and Division Street, across from downtown Peekskill’s landmark gazebo.
According to a statement from BID, “Local African American leaders describe Peekskill as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad where slaves seeking freedom followed the banks of MacGregory Brook from the Hudson River to secret hiding spots in Peekskill, like in the Park Street A.M.E. Zion Church, Hawley and Harriet Green’s home at 1112 Main Street and on the Henry Ward Beecher’s estate. Tubman is believed to have led some of those journeys to freedom herself.”
Lafern Joseph, secretary of Peekskill Business Improvement District and owner of African gift shop The Fern Tree, conducts guided tours of the Underground Railroad in Peekskill.
There are related virtual events listed at harriettubmanpeekskill.com.
Also, locally noteworthy in recognition of Black History Month is a virtual exhibition, at studiotheaterinexile.com, titled “19th Century Stereotypes vs. 19th Century Realty.”
Curator Jonette O’Kelley Miller says she created the enlightening historical exhibit “to plant seeds and serve as an example that African Americans (and all people of color in the United States) walk in intelligence, creativity and humanity.
“As reflected in the historical images here,” she continues, “African Americans continue to have to battle with and resist hateful ideas based on ignorance and/or bias regarding where our ‘place’ is supposed to be in this society.”
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
Her exhibit consists of three “rooms,” which are narrated videos that last six to 10 minutes each, showing images accompanied by her erudite narration.
Especially revealing is the contrast between Room 1’s “Accepted Stereotypes”—consisting of racist imagery—and Room 2’s “DuBois’ Real People” (referring to famed sociologist W.E.B. DuBois), which counters Room 1’s cartoonish stereotypes of inferiority and subjugation by highlighting African-Americans in everyday life, with photographs of “real, middle-class people of color,” such as a nursing student and a prominent reverend educated at Yale University.
The virtual exhibit is a collaboration between Studio Theater in Exile and Hudson Valley MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art).
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914-275-6887.