SCHENECTADY — William Seward and Harriet Tubman, both of whom are buried in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery in central New York, also will forever be linked with downtown Schenectady.
A sculpture of the two, created by Penn Yann artist Dexter Benedict, will be unveiled sometime in the spring on the grounds of the Schenectady County Public Library. Seward was a Union College graduate, a U.S. senator and New York governor, as well as secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln, and Tubman was a runaway slave who helped others escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“I think it’s very important that we show Seward and Tubman together,” said Schenectady’s Frank Wicks, a Union College emeritus professor and retired electrical engineer who came up with the idea more than a year ago. “If it was Seward by himself, it would be about him buying Alaska. But him with Tubman — two real fighters for liberty and freedom — when you put them together, you have a real story.”
Wicks was initially disappointed that Union College wasn’t more receptive to the idea of a statue of Seward and Tubman, but he’s happy with the way things turned out.
“I think the general view was that the statue should be for the general public, not just the Union campus,” Wicks said. “Most everyone I talked to at Union liked the idea, but some people thought that while the Seward connection was strong, the Tubman thing was a bit of a stretch. Everyone I talked to was very supportive of it being at the county library.”
The two life-sized figures show Seward with a walking stick and Tubman with a staff. The sculpture is still in Benedict’s Penn Yann studio, where he is applying the finishing touches. Benedict also created the two life-size bronze images of Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz that are now on Erie Boulevard near the General Electric Co., and he also produced a bust of Steinmetz that rests in a small park on Wendell Avenue, where the GE engineer used to live. Both of those were added to the Schenectady landscape within the past three years.
The name of the Seward-Tubman sculpture is “Leaders for Freedom and Justice.”
According to Carmel Patrick, president of the board of trustees for the library, the decision to accept the sculpture as a gift was an easy one.
“The entire board of trustees was supportive of the idea,” said Patrick, vice president of development at miSci. “Recognizing the library’s role as an educator, we all thought it was a very appropriate place for the statue. They were two very important individuals who did a lot for this country, and I look forward to seeing the final sculpture and honoring the courage, vision and leadership of Harriet Tubman and Secretary Seward.”
At the Schenectady County Public Library, this area will be the future site of a statue of William Seward and Harriett Tubman. (Marc Schultz)
Wicks raised money for the project with the help of fellow Union College professors Carl George and Twitty Styles, as well as other community members. Wicks, who said Benedict’s work comes with a $62,000 price tag, is still looking for financial contributions.
While Seward grew up in Auburn, he came to Schenectady as a 15-year-old Union College student and graduated in 1820. He was a staunch abolitionist, one of the founders of the Republican Party and ran for president in 1860, losing his party’s nomination to Lincoln.
Tubman, meanwhile, also has a connection to Schenectady. Among her many adventures prior to the Civil War, she was in Troy in 1860 and helped runaway slave Charles Nalle escape to Canada. The pair reportedly spent some time in Schenectady while on the run from authorities.
In 1859, Seward helped set Tubman up in a home on the outskirts of Auburn, just down the street from Seward’s house. Seward died in 1872 at the age of 71, while Tubman passed away in her early 90s, in 1913.