By Doug Draper
Posted February 9th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – At the recently opened Harriet Tubman Public School in St. Catharines, in a neighbourhood of the city where the 19th Century heroine whose name adorns this elementary school once lived, hundreds gathered this February 9th for the unveiling of a bronze statue to her.
The unveiling of the statue of Harriet Tubman, who spirited hundreds south of the border out of slavery to freedom in Canada during the years leading up the American Civil Wars, is the culmination of the school’s ‘Welcome Harriet Tubman Home’ campaing and is one of many events taking place throughout our greater binational Niagara region this February – all in commemoration of Black History Month.
The life-sized statue of Harriet Tubman, seated in a chair and resting a book in her hands, was commissioned by the District School Board of Niagara from former Niagara residents and artists Frank Rekrut and Laura Thompson, who now live and own an art studio in Florence, Italy, which has been a mecca for artists for centuries.
Frank Rekrut, who was unable to return for the unveiling, but whose son Michael was there to say a few words on his behalf, grew to admire Harriet Tubman and her legacy during his years in Niagara and, according to his son, hopes the statue serves as a continuous reminder to younger generations of her courage and compassion for others.
Rekrut also produced a bust of Harriet Tubman that is permanently displayed a short distance away from the school and neighbourhood where she lived, at the historic British Methodist Episcopal Church on Geneva Street where she was a member of that church’s Black congregation.
St. Catharines was Harriet Tubman’s home base for most of the 1850s while she went back and forth, leading fleeing slaves northward to Canada, where slavery was by then outlawed, on her “Underground Railroad.”
Tubman, who was born into slavery in Maryland in the 1820 and died in 1913 in Auburn, New York where she lived out her remaining years, stands today in both Canada and the United States as one of history’s great heroes and humanitarians. In the U.S., she is now on a shortlist notable women, including the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks and late First Lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt, for consideration as the first woman to be featured on that country’s paper currency.
Three parting notes I will leave you with here.
First and foremost, at a time in this country and world where we have witnessed far too much intolerance, fear and hatred between peoples that sometimes leads to ugly and even violent acts toward others, how great it is to witness people, young and old, celebrate the life of a courageous stalwart for freedom and humanity like Harriet Tubman.
Second, it was moving to watch a choir of young children at this ceremony for the unveiling of a statue of Tubman singing one of the most iconic hymns once sung by American slaves – ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ or, as it is sometimes sung, ‘Follow the Northern Star’ – which served as a disguised road map for those fleeing bondage.
Finally, how great it is to see a new school opened in a long-established urban community rather than somewhere out in the fringes in service of ever-more low-density sprawl. Congratulations to the District School Board of Niagara and City of St. Catharines for making it happen, and we should be far more of it in an age where we are talking about building more sustainable (as in walkable, liveable, environmentally friendly and affordable) communities. St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik can certainly include this on his list of building “sustainable, compassionate community” in his city.
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