Disarming Harriet Tubman


Public parks across America are littered with larger-than-life statues of war heroes, most of them carrying guns. Nevertheless, some people in Baltimore are up in arms over muralist Michael Alewitz's plans to depict Underground Railroad conductor Harriet "Moses" Tubman parting a swirling Red Sea with a rifle. The scene would be one of a series of murals called The Dreams of Harriet Tubman.

The Associated Black Charities of Baltimore, which had initially offered to display the mural on its downtown building, flat-out rejected sketches of a gunslinging Tubman. According to the group, the image could be viewed as racist or pro-violence and would be inappropriate in a city that witnesses 300 murders a year. Board members asked Alewitz to replace the rifle with a staff. When he refused, they told him to find another wall.

Alewitz is particularly rankled by the charge that his mural could promote gun violence. "When people refer to gun violence, what they're really talking about is violence—anti-social violence—by African-American or Latino people," he says. "In fact, most gun violence is conducted by the U.S. government. The two leading contenders for president celebrate the violence of the death penalty, and the embargoes of countries like Iraq and Cuba that have resulted in thousands of needless deaths. It is the height of hypocrisy to point at 300 homicides in Baltimore and then say, 'This is the cause of violence.'"

Alewitz adds that Tubman used her weapon as an instrument of liberation, to end the violence of slavery—"an appropriate example for young people today." Tubman was certainly one fierce lady, by any day's standards. She had to be to lead approximately 300 slaves to freedom—rifle in one hand, lantern in the other—and then join the Civil War as a guerrilla fighter.

Alewitz and the Baltimore Clayworks, the art center that commissioned the work, feel confident they'll find a prominent location for the mural, and the artist plans to be painting it by next summer.