Niagara police are investigating after a bust of Harriet Tubman was toppled over, smashing the face of the famed abolitionist.
The statue stood outside the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church in St. Catharines, Ont., that Tubman helped build along with other freed slaves.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’m still in shock,” said Rochelle Bush, a trustee of the church and its resident historian.
“She was a hero. Who would want to bother Harriet Tubman? She was a humanitarian. She was a freedom fighter.”
Bush said she was at home around 11 a.m. ET Monday when she received a call from a neighbour who was walking past the church on Geneva Street and noticed the statue had been knocked over.
Within 30 minutes, she was on site and found the bust lying next to its pedestal.
“The statue was toppled. Her nose was broken off,” said Bush. “She has to be replaced completely. There’s no salvaging it.”
Tubman’s bust had been vandalized before, according to the historian, but never to this degree.
“Everybody’s upset. We have to have it replaced,” Bush added. “With the statue being outside, it was a way for people to commemorate, learn a little bit more about Black history.”
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and led dozens of others to freedom through the secret network of safe houses and contacts known as the Underground Railroad.
Bush said that, at one point, Tubman was asked why she led freedom-seekers across the border.
Her answer was inscribed on the statue’s pedestal: “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.”
Man did ‘karate chops’ before tackling statue
The bust was erected in September 2010. Bush estimated it weighed roughly 45 kilograms.
She said the incident where it was wrecked was caught on security cameras.
Two people were involved, based on the video, said Bush, but only one of them actually attacked the statue.
The video shows a man entering the courtyard with the bust, sitting on a bench and appearing to talk to himself and the artwork.
After a few moments, he jumped up, punched the statue and spat on it before moving away, said Bush.
“He’s doing a lot of Bruce Lee kicks, a lot of karate chops in the air,” she said. Then, Bush said, the video shows the man circling the bust of Tubman like a wrestler in the ring and suddenly charging at it.
“This guy literally rushed her with all his force and pushed it over.”
Bush said the other person in the video was speaking with the man throughout the time he was in the courtyard.
She said she believes the man who actually toppled the artwork may have been under the influence, but it’s not clear at this point what motivated him to do so.
Bush said officers visited the site Tuesday. She’s waiting for police to complete their investigation.
Niagara police spokesperson Stephanie Sabourin confirmed detectives are investigating and working with the church to “address their concerns.”
Plans underway to replace bust
The bust is the work of Canadian sculptor Frank Rekrut, who spent a year working off a black-and-white photo of Tubman to sketch, mould and cast it.
The church has been in contact with the artist since the bust was ruined and is working on plans to replace it, hopefully with a bronze statue that would be more difficult to damage, said Bush.
The trustee said she’s also heard from community members and area politicians who expressed concerns about the bust being smashed and asking about how they can help fundraise to have it replaced.
“The people that have been reaching out to us and expressing their concern, we appreciate that,” she said.
“It lets us know that we do have the community support and they’re rallying behind us.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.