Visual Modeling of a Devout Leader
Step on Board is located at the entrance of Harriet Tubman Square (actually a triangular piece of land) at Columbus Avenue and Pembroke Street in Boston’s South End. Fern Cunningham created the seven feet by ten feet bronze in high relief, depicting Harriet Tubman with a multi-generational family of freedom seekers. Three of the adult figures including Tubman are modeled almost in the round, while the figures of an older man and woman are contiguous with the flat surface of the background. According to Cunningham, the figures emerge from the “wall of bondage.” Tubman leads the way in gesture and stride: she is in front of the other figures, her arm and outstretched hand containing the figures, and she steps vigorously outside the frame of the arched relief. This forceful forward movement is essential to Cunningham’s conception of Tubman as always in motion, leading freedom seekers from one place to another on the Underground Railroad.
All of the figures are depicted fully clothed in contrast to Meta Warrick Fuller’s Emancipation, which is located a few yards away and whose figures are semi-nude. In Step on Board, Cunningham modeled Tubman in modest dress with a shawl draped around her should and her hair fully wrapped in cloth, appropriate Methodist dress for a devotee. The three other women depicted in the monument are neatly coiffed with braided hair. The men wear short hair with the older man in full beard, the younger smoothed skin. Unlike James Gafgen or Mario Chiodo, Cunningham chose to portray Tubman without a gun, stating, “I didn’t want to glorify the gun. And I felt that Harriet’s power was not in any gun.” Significantly, Tubman grasps a Bible in her right hand, a symbol of her Christian devotion. For Cunningham, “Her power was from the Bible. She was an intensely religious woman, a member of the AME church. . . . she believed in God so strongly that everything she did was directed from God.”
The artist portrayed Tubman as young woman, basing her portrait on photographs of Tubman from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Cunningham has remarked at the difficulty of seeing such a range of images of Tubman that depicted her as an older and aged woman. “What I found was that every photograph of Harriet Tubman was intensely different. Her faced seemed to change radically from photograph to photograph. . . . So my task became: how can I give the feeling of her and blend all of these images of her into one, so people will look at her and feel that’s Harriet. . . . I tried to make her youthful, [there are] very few photographs of her as a youthful woman, but she did most her work she was in her youth.”
The suggestion of intimacy is striking in the memorial. Through gesture and gaze, Cunningham unites effectively her composition into a whole. Although Tubman strides forward, the intermingling and connection between the five adults and baby is pronounced. Behind Tubman and with her head turned to the right, stands a mother who cradles an infant in her arms. Next to the mother, an older man looks out to the mid distance. His body merges into the mother’s and the two figures directly in front of him: a young woman and man whose hands touch. Due to her closed eyes and bended knee, the young woman at the center of the composition looks ready to collapse from the journey, but is urged onward by her companion who reaches into his bag for sustenance. Behind the young man, an older woman gazes out to the left of the composition, her dress billowing out below her.
On the reverse of the high relief is a map of Tubman’s Underground Railroad route from Maryland to Delaware to Philadelphia to New York City to upstate New York to Canada, chiseled into the pink granite arched slab. The decision to include a map locates Tubman within a specific Northeast geography, and helps visitors to orient themselves in contemporary time and space. It also suggests how arduous the long journey was for the men, women, and children who sought freedom in the North. Planners also included several well-known quotations taken from Sarah H. Bradford’s Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869).
Quotations on reverse of monument:
Harriet Tubman: There are two things I’ve got a right to, and these are, death or liberty. One or another I mean to have. No one will take me back alive.
Frederick Douglass: The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.
Harriet Tubman: Tell my brothers to be always watching unto prayer, and when the good old ship of Zion comes along to be ready to step aboard.
Sarah Bradford: She expected deliverance when she prayed, unless the Lord ordered otherwise.