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Harriet Tubman vs. John Hanson: Statuary Hall smackdown

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 10:28 AM

Harriet Tubman has history on her side. But does she have the votes?

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The famous abolitionist is locked in a historical steel-cage match with the increasingly forgotten patriot John Hanson - one that's playing out not far from John Hanson Highway in Annapolis, where Maryland lawmakers, historians and activists have been debating whether to refresh the state's history by dumping Hanson in favor of Tubman.

At stake: one of 100 marble pedestals in the exclusive if not always accessible National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol.

For the past 108 years, Hanson, a leading advocate of American independence, has been honored at the Capitol with a larger-than-life statue that the public almost never sees. Wearing a tricorn hat, waistcoat, breeches and other colonial-era clothes, the old Southern Marylander's 7-foot, 3-inch bronze likeness peers down at lawmakers and legislative aides rushing through a restricted-access corridor outside the Senate chamber.

Hanson was a member of the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled." But as time marches on, he slips deeper into the margins of history, his legacy imperiled even in his home state.

"I don't even know who he is," Leslie Rowland admitted from College Park, where she teaches mid-19th-century American history at the University of Maryland.

Now Hanson could be in jeopardy of fading even further into obscurity, with Maryland lawmakers considering a proposal to replace the former slave owner with a hero of the Underground Railroad.

Tubman, who was born into slavery in Dorchester County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, would be the first African American and the 10th woman in the 100-member marble-and-bronze club that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has called a "diversity embarrassment."

"The collection reflects basically a white male view of history," said Linda Mahoney, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, which has lobbied for the Tubman statue. "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. She's an obvious selection."

The bill, which was sponsored in the House by the chair of the women's caucus and in the Senate by the chair of the black caucus, could face its first test in a Senate committee vote Tuesday.

Tubman has some prominent backers, including Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). But several lawmakers, including one of Hanson's own descendants and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), have argued vigorously against ousting the largely forgotten patriot, even if it's to make way for a widely admired name-brand historical figure such as Tubman.

Racial and gender divide

The debate is fraught with potential land mines on race and gender. The key players for the most part have spoken cautiously about the bill, which has considerable support among women and African Americans, Mahoney said.


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