In 2008, Alison Saar’s statue Swing Low became the first public monument to an African American woman in New York City. Located in Harlem, it honors Harriet Tubman, the celebrated African American abolitionist who self-emancipated in 1849 and repeatedly risked her life to complete an estimated (and astonishing) 13 trips back to her native Maryland to help others get to freedom. The New-York Historical Society holds a maquette, or working model, of Saar’s monument, and has recently acquired additional objects related to the making of Swing Low. These new acquisitions, including a bronze tile and other archival materials, reflect the museum’s priority to collect work by contemporary women artists and artists of color, as well as its commitment to highlighting Black women’s history.
Swing Low likens Tubman to the Underground Railroad. Her petticoat forms the front grate of a train; and on her skirt ride the faces, belongings, and shoeprints of people she helped to escape from bondage. At the public unveiling, Saar explained, “I chose to depict Harriet Tubman not so much as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as a train itself, an unstoppable locomotive that worked towards improving the lives of slaves for most of her long life.”
Harriet’s Escape is part of a series of tiles that wraps around the monument base and alternates between scenes of Tubman’s life and quilting symbols. The tile appears on the front of the platform and depicts Tubman’s escape from slavery. It shows her in silhouette form, following the North Star.
New-York Historical’s recently acquired bronze cast of Harriet’s Escape is joined by the model for the tile and a folding book of early design ideas for the base of the Swing Low memorial, along with a pencil drawing of the Underground Railroad passengers and personal objects riding toward freedom on Tubman’s skirt.
Saar has explained that narrating the abolitionist’s life in a visual, non-textual form honors the fact that Tubman was denied the opportunity to learn to read and write. The tiles tell her story in a form that Tubman herself would have been able to “read.”
After her escape from slavery in 1849, Tubman connected with others in the antislavery movement in Philadelphia and began formulating a plan to return to Maryland to guide other family members and friends toward freedom. Yet Tubman’s work extended far beyond her Underground Railroad trips: She also gave countless lectures and storytelling performances about her life, testifying to the brutality of slavery and drawing listeners to the abolitionist cause. She built a network of supporters, both Black and white, who would aid her work financially and logistically for the rest of her life. And she continued to work—as a cook, domestic worker, and farm worker—to support herself and the many people who depended on her.
Tubman served with the Union Army for more than two years as nurse, cook, and spy. In June 1863, she acted as commander of a group of scouts in the Combahee River Raid, when a regiment of Black soldiers captured almost 800 slaves while suffering no injuries. In the years after the war, she partnered with a white female author to write a biography. The earnings allowed her to pay off the mortgage on her home. In order to raise funds to establish a home for elderly Black people, she gave talks to women’s suffrage groups, fundraised among her wide network of white former abolitionists, and produced another book.
Denied an army pension for her war work, she received only a small monthly widow’s pension. Tubman repeatedly petitioned the Committee on Invalid Pensions, which in 1898 ruled to increase Tubman’s monthly stipend instead of granting her a veteran’s pension.
Alison Saar is the daughter of noted artist Betye Saar and works in sculpture, drawing, and prints. She is known for her depictions of Black women and her exploration of race, gender, and history in America and the African diaspora. Saar often utilizes found materials in her sculptures, and draws from a wide range of cultural references as well as from personal experience as a multiracial woman. Her monument to Tubman is one of her best-known works, and New-York Historical is thrilled to hold these archival pieces that reveal her artistic process and engagement with the past.
Written by Wendy N.E. Ikemoto, Curator of American Art and Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History.