SCHENECTADY — William Seward, the Union College graduate who aspired to the presidency and became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, is best known as a statesman.
But he was an ardent anti-slavery activist, too, who in the dangerous years before the Civil War befriended former slave Harriet Tubman, the most famous of the “conductors” on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. He sold her seven acres of land near his Auburn home in 1859, when a white man selling a black woman property was a brave thing for both.
Their friendship is commemorated with a new life-size cast-bronze statue unveiled Friday outside the Karen B. Johnson Schenectady County Public Library, the city’s central library on Clinton Street. The statue is set in a small garden near the Clinton Street entrance.
“The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still in effect. Every move [Tubman] made was cloaked in danger,” said Jeffrey Ludwig, director of education at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, who spoke before the unveiling.
The unveiling, with an hour-long ceremony, was the culmination of the vision three years ago of retired Union College engineering professor Frank Wicks. He worked with his fellow retired professors Twitty Styles and Carl George, with significant help from many others in the community.
“This is conceived to show the human side of Seward,” Wicks said. “Seward and Tubman had very different lives, but there was this intersection.”
In the statue, Seward is dressed in the suit and vest of a 19th-century politician, while Tubman wears a simple dress and carries a shepherd’s staff. Over her shoulder is slung a handbag in which — this is historically accurate — the barrel of a pistol is visible.
The sculpture was developed and cast by Dexter Benedict of Fire Works Foundry in Penn Yan, Yates County, the same artist who created the Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz statues that debuted on Erie Boulevard in 2015. Many of the same people were involved in both projects.
“I want to recognize the importance of public art and it recognizes the influence individuals can have on communities,” said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy.
The statues were originally planned to be unveiled in May 2018, but the work was delayed a year after a fire destroyed Benedict’s studio in November 2017. The fire happened at the point where the initial clay models were nearly done.
“I was approaching finishing it and then the fire happened, and I pretty much had to start from scratch,” Benedict said on Friday.
The sculptures, which are hollow, are made by creating a mold using the clay models, then pouring 2,000-degree molten bronze into the mold, Benedict said. The entire creation process takes about seven months, he said.
Seward was an 1820 graduate of Union College who became governor of New York (1839-1842), a U.S. senator (1849-1861) and then Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War. He spoke against slavery as early as college, then married into a Quaker family in Auburn. The Quakers were strongly abolitionist and known for helping freed slaves, and his wife used their house as a station to house runaway slaves.
Tubman, meanwhile, was born into slavery around 1822 but escaped to freedom in the 1840s. She repeatedly returned to the South and led groups of escaped slaves to freedom. She passed through the Capital Region, taking escapees to western New York and Canada.
In 1859, Seward illegally sold land to Tubman. Today the houses are museums and National Historic Landmarks.
The inscription on the base of the statue reads: “William Seward and Harriet Tubman, Leadership and Freedom, Diversity and Friendship” There is then a quote from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “By the People and for the People.”
The sculpture, which cost more than $60,000, was privately funded. Callanan Industries in Pattersonville donated a five-ton block of local dolostone to serve as the statue’s base.