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Sharing the Harriet Tubman story — through wax, at Madame Tussauds

It was the eyes.

The eyes that sought out the North Star so many times. The eyes that guided feet along the Underground Railroad. The eyes that saw freedom for her people.

The glint in the eyes of Harriet Tubman, unveiled Tuesday as a wax figure at Madame Tussauds in the District, moved her descendants to tears.

“I’ve seen so many people try to portray Harriet,” said Valery Ross Manokey, Tubman’s great-great-niece and, at 76, the oldest descendant and a resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Tubman was enslaved. “This is the best I have ever seen. It’s like she’s looking at you. It’s like she’s watching you.”

Thirteen of Tubman’s relatives and about 50 students from Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Northwest Washington saw her for the first time early Tuesday, before the figure took its place in the Presidents Gallery of Madame Tussauds. Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and is believed to have led at least 300 slaves to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in more than a dozen trips.

She had the opportunity to live free herself, Charles E.T. Ross, Tubman’s great-great-great-nephew, told the students, but she kept returning to free others.

“There was no better person from a historical standpoint, from an inspirational standpoint,” said Dan Rogoski, general manager of the Presidents Gallery.

Tubman’s wax figure is the first new addition to the Presidents Gallery, which features other historical figures besides U.S. presidents, since its opening a year ago. She is in the Civil War room, which also has figures of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

“It’s definitely keeping her legacy alive,” said Patricia Ross Hawkins, Tubman’s great-great-great-niece.

But Tubman didn’t exist in a world of high-definition video and high-resolution photos, so making her come alive through wax was a challenge. Artists in London spent four months on the project, relying on paintings and primitive photographs for guidance, Rogoski said.

“I think we came up with a perfect wax figure,” he said. “It feels like she’s leading you through the Underground Railroad.”

And her family agreed. They circled around her, taking pictures and wiping away tears, grabbing her outstretched hand and memorizing the wrinkles in her face.

“I’ve never felt this connected,” Manokey said.

“The only thing she needs now is breath,” Ross added.

Tubman’s next likeness could be as a statue in the U.S. Capitol, where a nearly year-long battle has yet to be concluded over whether she should be placed in the renowned National Statuary Hall Collection, taking the place of a current statue of Maryland revolutionary John Hanson.

But Tubman’s descendants don’t want the abolitionist to be recognized at the expense of anyone else.

“What if I was that person’s relative?” Ross said. “How would I feel if Harriet was there and they wanted to remove her? There’s so many other places they can put her.”


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