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Chester County Press

Editorial: Harriet Tubman is going nowhere

03/10/2020 01:09PM ● By Richard Gaw
This is the story of two murals.

The first was created by artist Laura Dedonato of Boston, Mass., and it occupies a long wall on the campus of Roxbury Community College. It is not only beautiful, but its message is all-encompassing. Component by component, the artwork illuminates the diversity of the community and boldly tells the narrative of its people, its neighborhoods and its future. On the right edge of the mural, students of many nationalities are pictured at their desks in a classroom. In its middle, the artwork features a neat strip of tidy homes beside factory buildings with smokestacks, signifying connection between Live and Work. Its left side pays tribute to the town’s places of faith and worship, its woodlands and some of its most prominent citizens, among them being Ed “Pop” Cooper, who worked to better Roxbury through his many community gardens.

The second mural takes up the north wall of the building located at 120 South Willow Street in Kennett Square, the site of the former Hope Chatham Lodge 40 that was created in 1865 by local African Americans. Created by muralists Dave Mass and Joe Gothelf and dedicated on Nov. 13, 2010, the wall depicts abolitionist Harriet Tubman holding a lit lamp, while three silhouetted figures run toward the light. For nearly ten years, the mural has served as one of the borough’s most dignified and poignant references to the fact that Kennett Square – and southern Chester County – served as a major route on the Underground Railroad, which gave hope and freedom to thousands of freedom seekers, abolitionists, conductors and stationmasters.

It is a symbol of human values, it applauds the resilience of the human spirit, and like any monument to history is supposed to do, it serves as a testimony to what once happened here.  

When construction on the new Kennett Library begins in March 2021 – one that will bring a 29,257-square-foot center of learning and destination for information and ideas – it will require the clearing of three lots at 120 and 124 South Willow Street and 320 East State Street.

It will also necessitate the demolition of the building where the Tubman mural resides.

There has already been local rumblings against the removal of the mural, who claim that the library is desecrating not only the mural itself, but what the mural stands for. To those detractors, we recall a similar objection that was levied against the library a few years ago, when several community members disagreed in the re-naming – and re-branding -- of the library, from the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library to the Kennett Library. It’s an outrage, some said, a slap in the face to its namesake and area history.

What happened as a result? As the design of the new library began to take shape, the library’s board of directors and its key stakeholders stipulated that the memory of Taylor not vanish into the sidewalk. Rather, when the new facility opens in the summer of 2022, its lobby will feature a prominent painting of Taylor. A study room will be named in honor of him, and there is an entire section on the library’s website that provides a biography of Taylor. In short, Bayard Taylor is coming along on the library’s biggest journey yet.

So is Harriet Tubman.

While it exists now only in the creative interchange of ideas that are slowly forming what will become the new Kennett Library, there is thought that the library will eventually become the home to a new mural, one that will celebrate not only Tubman’s heroism and deeds, but those of Taylor, and the historic and economic significance of the mushroom industry, and the unique kaleidoscope of Kennett Square’s diversity, and the rolling hills and farm fields that grace southern Chester County.

In short, what the muralist Laura Dedonato did for the community of Roxbury, the Kennett Library wants to do for the community it serves – and will serve for generations to come.

The quiet and courageous deeds that Harriet Tubman did for freedom seekers who came through southern Chester County two centuries ago cannot be forgotten. By virtue of the mural that now rests in the imagination of those who are creating a new Kennett Library, one idea is certain.

Harriet Tubman is staying in Kennett Square. 

Share your ideas. Members of the Kennett Library are hosting a community meeting on Sat., March 14 at 10:00 a.m. in the library’s conference room, to discuss ideas related to the library’s concepts of how to continue to honor Harriet Tubman.