Tubman mural with musket is rejected

Associated Black Charities decides artwork conveys wrong image for office

June 14, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Saying it doesn't reflect their image, the Associated Black Charities board unanimously rejected last night a contentious mural of Harriet Tubman carrying a musket, which was intended for its downtown building at Cathedral and Chase streets.

Mural artist Mike Alewitz and staffers from Baltimore Clayworks, which commissioned the work, searched yesterday for "appropriately visible" sites and walls in the city for the larger-than-life image, which was originally planned to stand 25 feet tall on a wall facing Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"It needs to be a good public wall," Alewitz said.

"It's fine if it's not a good fit," Deborah Bedwell, executive director of Clayworks, said before last night's vote. Clayworks, a Mount Washington nonprofit, chose Alewitz to portray the Underground Railroad leader in five works to be installed in Maryland as part of a Mid-Atlantic Arts Council project. She said his work centers on social justice themes.

The musket in the mural design stirred an outcry about historical truth vs. contemporary reality.

Some suggested that Alewitz's design, showing Tubman holding a musket as she symbolically parts a Red Sea and leads slaves to freedom, condones gun violence.

The issue triggered debate about whether it was appropriate for Associated Black Charities' public wall in a city that records at least 300 homicides a year.

"It has started the community discussing slavery, race and history," said Donna Jones Stanley, the Associated executive director, who recommended against Alewitz's design.

Since 1985, the Associated has been a leading presence in the black community, giving nearly $6 million in grants to programs benefiting the greater Baltimore area.

It is agreed Tubman carried a gun for protection, but Stanley declared, "It is not historically correct. She carried a pistol, not a rifle. It's his vision, but it's our wall."

A few urged Alewitz to substitute a staff for the musket. He refused last week, saying, "I will not disarm Harriet Tubman. ... There was nothing safe about her." Phillip Sterling and Rayford Logan wrote in "Four Took Freedom" that Tubman made 11 trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852 to 1857, leading about 300 to freedom. "Her most famous trip concerned a passenger who panicked and wanted to turn back. Tubman was afraid if he left he would be tortured and would tell all he knew. The unwilling passenger changed his mind when Tubman pointed a gun at his head and said `dead folks tell no tales.'"

Said Alewitz: "Nothing will stop this historic endeavor. Harriet Tubman will live on the walls of Maryland."

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