Forward out of Slavery

I believe it was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Burnette, who taught me the underground railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a secret network of people and pathways to help slaves escape. I’ve learned more about famed “conductor” Harriet Tubman’s role in this network by discussing Jacob Lawrence’s painting Forward with visitors in the galleries.

Currently on view in the American Gallery in West Building: Jacob Lawrence, Forward, 1967, tempera on Masonite panel, 23 7/8 x 35 15/16 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina
 Jacob Lawrence (1917—2000) created Forward as part of a series of other works of art to tell the stories of important historical events in the lives of African Americans.

Here are three facts about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad to better understand the story behind this work of art:

1. Harriet Tubman (who appears in the red top in the foreground) was a runaway slave who escaped in 1849 and returned to free others at least 13 times. In this painting, she’s guiding four slaves and a small baby to freedom.

2. Tubman would carry a gun and threatened to use it if anyone wanted to change his or her mind to turn back, because she knew returning would put both her and the others in danger of discovery. You can see the silhouette of a gun contrasted against Tubman’s white skirt in Forward.

3. Escapees traveled at night using the North Star to navigate their journey to freedom.

In this work of art, Jacob Lawrence combined his historical research with his emotional response to the perils of escaping slavery. In the video below, Richard Powell, professor of art and art history at Duke University, tells us how Lawrence brings Harriet Tubman’s story to life in using carefully chosen imagery and composition.https://player.vimeo.com/video/134150176?app_id=122963

Learn more: Read one former slave’s account of his escape to freedom via the underground railroad.

“The struggle of the American people is a really beautiful thing. It’s a symbol of what can be achieved.”

–Jacob Lawrence

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