There’s a debate brewing in Maryland pitting women and African Americans against the “good old boy” political establishment. Maryland lawmakers are considering replacing a statute of John Hanson, a Maryland representative, which stands in the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, with one of Harriet Tubman. Hanson, a Maryland advocate for American independence in the 1700’s, is hardly known among anyone studying history. Yet, his statute was placed in the Hall over 108 years ago. Harriet Tubman, born a slave in Maryland, is nationally and widely known for her efforts to free slaves, risking her life and freedom to do so. Replacing a statute in the Hall is nothing new. Other states have done similar acts and replaced earlier statutes. But, in Maryland, the choice is controversial and pits women and African Americans against some established and powerful Maryland politicians. Tubman, if allowed to replace Hanson, would become the first African American statute and the 10th woman of a 100 statute collection at the Capitol. The collection representing 50 states is hardly a model in diversity.
Linda Mahoney, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women (“NOW”) says, “it’s time to update Maryland’s representatives in National Statuary Hall and take a different look at history…Harriet Tubman is the ultimate icon, especially for women and African Americans.” Mahoney is not sure if the Maryland legislature will pass the bill. She notes that “there’s a certain part of the legislature that’s less forward-looking and progressive—good ole boys who’ve been in power for so long.” One of those opposing the replacement statute is Maryland’s Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. Coincidentally, Miller is a descendant of Hanson. Those in opposition to removal of the Hanson statute also cite history as their motive. They do not desire to discredit Harriet Tubman but acknowledge the historical significance of Hanson as having a major role in what became the United States. The argument for keeping an earlier placed statute might be stronger if the present figure was well known, like Maryland native, Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem.
Meanwhile, as the controversy was brewing in Maryland, national efforts were underway, on February 1, 2011, when Senators Barbara A. Mikulski , Benjamin L. Cardin (both D-MD) Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (both D-NY) introduced legislation in the 112th Congress to honor the life of Harriet Tubman with two National Historical parks, one in Maryland and one in New York. The National Historical Park in Maryland will trace Tubman’s early life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she was born and later escaped from slavery to become one of the leaders on the Underground Railroad. The National Historical Park in New York will be located in Auburn and will focus on her later years where she was active in the women’s suffrage movement.
The Maryland bill to honor Tubman in the Capitol was sponsored in the Maryland House of Delegates by the chair of the women’s caucus and in the Senate by the chair of the black caucus. It faces its first test on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 with a Senate committee vote. The decision to place Tubman’s statute in the Capitol rests completely in the hands of the Maryland legislature.
In 2005, I recall how proud I felt to see Rosa Parks honored as the first woman and second African American to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda. It would be a fitting honor to have Harriet Tubman’s statute in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol. What a fitting way to honor Women’s history month.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a lawyer and political and legal commentator. She addresses issues on women and race in law and politics. She also writes for the Huffington Post. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School and a BA in African American history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a native of Baltimore, MD.