William Seward and Harriet Tubman overcame many challenges in their lives, as has the Seward-Tubman Statue project.
Originally scheduled for an unveiling at the Schenectady County Public Library in May of 2018, the work of sculptor Dexter Benedict, of Penn Yan (Yates County), depicts the 19th century New York statesman standing beside the escaped slave. But the sculpture was destroyed in a fire at his art studio on Nov. 1, 2017.
“I had to start over from scratch,” said Benedict, the same artist who, in May of 2015, sculpted the statue of Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz that stands at Erie Boulevard and South Ferry Street. He also created a bust of Steinmetz, in May of 2016, on the now-empty Wendell Avenue lot where the GE scientist lived.
“Everything was lost with the exception of the steel armatures, over which the clay is applied,” Benedict said. “Both armatures were damaged, but I was able to salvage them for the reconstruction of the figures.”
Benedict said his studio burned to the ground, due to a propane leak. His new building was completed by April of 2018, but all the equipment and the foundry were not ready until nearly September. He started working on the Seward-Tubman statue in October and is about to begin the process of molding and casting the figures in bronze.
“The new studio is up to code and very well constructed,” he said. “Few things are guaranteed in life. An airplane could fall out of the sky and hit the studio, but all precautions against fire are now in place. The first task was to make plasticine clay, about 2,000 pounds, and then start modeling Tubman and Seward again. The figures are similar to the previous clay sculptures in gesture, but now more complete and ready to be molded and cast in bronze.”
Project chairman Frank Wickes, a former Union College professor, said the statue’s unveiling will take place on May 17 at the library.
“We have a few options with grassy patches where we can put it up just outside the library,” said Wickes. “We found a rock for the base in a rock quarry along Route 5 heading toward Amsterdam, so we’re all set with that. The statue will probably be delivered a few days before the 17th, and we’ve scheduled it then to coincide with homecoming week at Union College.”
Seward was an 1820 graduate of Union College who went on to become Governor of New York (1839-1842), a U.S. Senator (1849-1861) and then Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War. When Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell attacked Seward at his home, stabbing him five times around the neck and face. Seward, however, who had been severely injured in a carriage accident a week earlier, survived the attack and remained Secretary of State until 1869. An abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party, Seward died in 1872.
Tubman, meanwhile, was born into slavery around 1822 but escaped to freedom in the 1840s. She was one of the chief engineers of the Underground Railroad just prior to the Civil War, embarking on at least 13 missions that saved more than 70 people. In 1859, Seward illegally sold some land to Tubman in his hometown of Auburn, and both houses, just a couple hundred feet apart, are now museums and National Historic Landmarks.
Benedict’s statue shows Seward with a walking stick and Tubman with a shepherd’s staff. The inscription on the base of the statue will read: “William Seward and Harriet Tubman, Leadership and Freedom, Diversity and Friendship. More information about Seward will be on the left side of the statue, and a brief summary of Tubman’s life will be on the right side.
For more information about the statue project, visit www.tubmansewardstatue.org.