What would Eliphalet do?
As Union College mulls a decision on whether to accept a statue depicting two historic figures, one a notable alumnus and the other a heroine of the Underground Railroad, it may want to consider what longtime president Eliphalet Nott would have done.
For Frank Wicks, a retired electrical engineer, a Union emeritus professor and the individual putting up most of the money to finance a likeness of William Seward and Harriet Tubman, that question is a no-brainer. Nott would have enthusiastically welcomed it.
“Seward was one of Nott’s prized pupils, Nott was his mentor, and Seward and Tubman had a very close connection,” said Wicks, who has commissioned Penn Yann artist Dexter Benedict to produce a statue of Seward and Tubman. “Nott had a very close relationship with a runaway slave, Moses Viney, and Seward and Tubman had the common cause of abolition. They were friends before, during and after the Civil War, and without Seward helping Tubman and providing a home for her in Auburn, we might not have heard so much about her.”
Benedict, an art professor at Keuka College in central New York, is the same sculptor who in 2015 created a statue of General Electric icons Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz that is now located on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady. Benedict also created a bust of Steinmetz on display on Wendell Avenue, where the Wizard of Schenectady lived. The man mostly responsible for those two pieces of work being in Schenectady is Brian Merriam, and Merriam heartily supports Wicks’ effort to bring another Benedict creation to the Union College campus.
“Seward is an amazing character who is recognized in Washington, D.C., and Auburn, but not here in Schenectady,” said Merriam, who only last week completed the work of lighting the Edison-Steinmetz statue at the corner of Erie Boulevard and South Ferry Street. “He’s a Union graduate, a governor of New York, a secretary of state during the Civil War. I could argue he’s done a lot more for this country than Chester Arthur, whose statue is on campus.”
Wicks is hopeful the college will agree to place Seward and Tubman somewhere on the Union campus, preferably next to the statue of Arthur, the nation’s 21st president and 1848 Union grad. Dexter’s model shows Seward with a cane and Tubman holding a shepherd’s staff.
“I’m hoping and thinking the college will probably accept the statue, and if they don’t we’ll look for a spot off campus, maybe somewhere on Erie Boulevard,” said Wicks, who has also gained support for his project from fellow Union professors Carl George and Twitty Styles. “I’m guaranteeing $62,000, that’s my cost for the statue, but I’m also looking for contributions.”
With Tubman scheduled to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill sometime by 2020, Merriam says her story and its connection to Seward is one that needs to be told.
“This is going to be a national story, and where better to tell that story than at Union College in Schenectady,” said Merriam, who added that another statue project honoring early female physician and state legislator Elizabeth Gillette is also taking form “There is a small plaque honoring Seward at the corner of Seward Place and Union Street, but if you’re not looking for it you’ll miss it. A statue really draws everyone’s attention to this really dramatic story, and a prominent story like this one is a great way for Union to get national attention.”
According to Marsha Mortimore of Rotterdam, a local black historian who helped Wicks research Tubman’s life, a Seward-Tubman statue on the grounds of Union College makes perfect sense.
“It’s a natural fit,” said Mortimore, who researched the history of blacks in Schenectady in her book, “The Early African American Presence in the City and County of Schenectady.” “It’s an awesome tribute. Along with their personal relationship, Seward and his wife financed some of Tubman’s work with the Underground Railroad.”
Tubman’s friendship with Seward isn’t her only tie to the Capital Region. Included in her many exploits is the story of runaway slave Charles Nalle, who was jailed in Troy in 1860 before a daring escape aided by Tubman. The pair reportedly hid out in Schenectady before Nalle continued his flight to freedom in Canada. He was eventually allowed to return to Troy after friends raised enough money to secure his freedom.
In May 2014, the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church, with Mortimore leading the project, put up a historical marker at the southeast corner of State and Hulett streets in Hamilton Hill. The location near the church was chosen when its members chose to honor Tubman by changing the name of that section of Hulett Street to Harriet Tubman Way. Tubman was into her 90s when she died in her Auburn home, given her by Seward, in 1913.