Change for a Twenty: Honoring the Legacy of Harriet Tubman

"I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." -Harriet Tubman

Every summer, several people gather in a park in Boston's historic South End neighborhood in front of a 10-foot bronze statue of famed abolitionist and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. Created by artist Fern Cunningham, the statue was the first on city-owned property to honor a woman.

'Mother Moses' - a name given to Tubman by famed Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as she led many of her people out of bondage into freedom - is depicted standing erect in front of a small group of tired and frightened people of African descent. Her expression is steadfast, resolute and unafraid. In one hand, she clutches a Bible as her other hand extends outward, pointing the way toward freedom.

As a member of the board of the Friends of Harriet Tubman Park, and as the great grandchild of people who were themselves enslaved, I participate in this yearly gathering that involves the ritual of reverently and gently washing, waxing, and buffing the statue. The effort protects the statue from the harsh elements of city life, and also ensures that its majesty is not diminished. I am overwhelmed with gratitude as I cleanse her feet and outstretched hands, and as I gently wash her face I find myself saying softly into her ear "thank you." I tell her that we remember and are grateful because she dared to take her freedom from those who held her captive and also worked to free so many others as well.

I went to the statue in the park shortly after Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that Tubman would soon adorn the front of the $20 bill. In doing so, she would replace former President Andrew Jackson, himself a holder of slaves. Tubman will be the first American woman to appear on US paper currency in more than a century.

Adding Tubman's face to our nation's most traded piece of currency might to some seem a mere gesture, but to me it represents an opportunity for reflecting on this moment in our shared history. We have a chance to take a step forward together if we can truly honor our past.

I am reminded of the words of another great foot soldier for justice and freedom Nelson Mandela who said, "There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires." Tubman, who spent the first 28 years of her life in captivity on a Maryland plantation before escaping, risked her newfound freedom to liberate other enslaved people by following the North Star.

I also was prompted to think of actress Viola Davis's speech during the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards after she won the award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for her role in "How to Get Away with Murder," making her the first Black woman to win that distinction. No easy feat. Davis began her remarks with a quote from Tubman: "In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn't reach them no-how. I always fell before I got to the line."

Without question, we still have much work before as a nation and as a society to bring about equitable opportunities for all citizens to realize their full potential. But this week, Tubman's words echoed in my head as I sat in that Boston park, erected to honor her legacy of courage and steadfastness:

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."