Fern Cunningham-Terry’s sculpture in the South End of Harriet Tubman was historic and groundbreaking — the first statue on city-owned property of a Black woman and the first on city-owned property honoring a woman.
For the artist, though, her sculpture in Harriet Tubman Square also asked an important question.
“When you look at African-American heroes, people who have been important to our history, to our development, they have been largely ignored,” she told the Globe in 1999, just before her sculpture was installed, and added: “This is the American dilemma: Who is a hero?”
Ms. Cunningham-Terry, who was 71 when she died Wednesday of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder, spent a half-century addressing the disparity of whose accomplishments are recognized in public art.
“I was determined to create figures of Black people,” she said in a 2009 interview for “Basic Black” on WGBH-TV. “So that was my mission.”
Her most famous work is “Step on Board,” which shows Tubman, the abolitionist who had escaped slavery, with a Bible under her arm, left hand outstretched, leading others to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“Initially I thought of having her sitting down, but the more I read about her, I thought she should be standing, and in motion. She should be pulling people along,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry said.
And while the sculpture captures movement on many levels — physical, geographical, political — the details convey the emotion of stepping from captivity into freedom and a new chapter in history.
“When you look at my work you see faces,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry said in a 2003 Globe interview. “It’s what draws you in.”
Along with the Tubman statue in the South End, the faces in Ms. Cunningham-Terry’s sculptures gaze out at passersby in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan Square, where “Rise,” an artwork installed in 2005 that she created with her cousin Karen Eutemey, honors the neighborhood’s Black and Indigenous history.
The cousins’ separate towering statues form an “implied gateway” across Blue Hill Avenue, Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, said in 2005.
The sculptures recall “the rising of the sun with its promise of a new day,” Gaither told a crowd as the artworks were unveiled.
“It’s a piece that’s basically for the people,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry said then. “It’s designed to provide them with the past, present, and future of Mattapan, to bring all the cultures together.”
She was hesitant to hold any of her creations as more precious than all the others.
“With every one of her sculptures she would say, ‘This is like a birth,’ " recalled her husband, the drummer Alvin Terry.
Ms. Cunningham-Terry once told The Patriot-Ledger of Quincy, however, that “The Sentinel” — a bronze sculpture of a Black woman — was her favorite.
The artwork, which is part of the Forest Hills Cemetery sculpture path, was inspired by a photograph of a woman who “looked so watchful, like the protector of the stories, the keeper of the knowledge, and the eternal observer,” she told the Globe in 2001.
In 2003, she and her husband unveiled the sculpture in the Jamaica Plain cemetery with a program that included music from his ensemble.
“I like her because she reminds me so much of myself,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry said of “The Sentinel” in a WGBH interview.
The younger of two sisters, Fern Cunningham was born in Queens, N.Y., on Jan. 24, 1949.
Her father, Dr. James F. Cunningham, was a physician who early in his career treated tuberculosis patients and later focused on psychiatry. Her mother, Margaret Barnes, founded the Hamilton Hill Arts Center in Schenectady, N.Y.
When Ms. Cunningham-Terry was young, her father’s work took the family to an island in Alaska.
“My mother was an art teacher, a potter, painter, singer, and guitar player,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry told the Globe in 1999. While her mother taught art to children at the local hospital, “I would go to classes with her, and I guess that was the beginning of my loving art.”
The surroundings provided another education for her.
“As a child, I was always collecting stones on the beach, not because of color, but because of their form and texture,” she said. “I also felt the same about trees. All those formations, the way they grow, the way branches pull out of the basic form, like a hand reaching up.”
The Cunninghams moved to Delmar, N.Y., just west of Albany, and became the community’s first Black family – “much to the dismay of people who lived there,” she recalled.
While in the 10th grade, Ms. Cunningham-Terry announced to her family that she planned to become a sculptor.
After graduating from high school, she spent the summer at Ecole des Beaux Arts at Fontainebleau in France before attending Boston University, where her teachers included the renowned sculptor John Wilson.
“I didn’t apply anywhere else because after researching art schools, it became clear that no one else was working with the figure in the way BU was, and I wanted the figure,” she said.
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1971, she taught at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts for several years before moving to the Park School in Brookline, where she was a teacher for 33 years.
Ms. Cunningham-Terry, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, raised her four children alone.
“She was just such a selfless mother who sacrificed so much for us, at one point taking four different buses to take us to four different schools, raising us as a single parent,” said her daughter Shandalea Abdul-Hadi of Dorchester.
“She also was hilarious and she loved songs,” Shandalea said. “We just sang our life away through my childhood. She just wanted to make sure that we all followed our passions as well. She made sure that we knew that and believed that, and we still believe that.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Cunningham-Terry leaves two sons, Kumasi Allen of Dorchester and Kahlil Allen of Roxbury; another daughter, Autumn Allen of Norwood; a sister, Margaret Conn of Schenectady, N.Y.; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
The public will gather at 2 p.m. Thursday in Davis Funeral Home in Roxbury, with limited numbers allowed inside at a time. The family will hold a service in the funeral home at 11 a.m. Friday.
Ms. Cunningham-Terry will be buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, not far from her sculpture “The Sentinel.”
Though often honored for her work, “you would never hear her speak about it. If you wanted to talk about art with Fern, you would probably have to bring it up,” said her husband, with whom she lived in Hanson.
“When people marveled at her art,” he added, “I would say, ‘It’s not her best feature. Her best feature was that she was just full of love.’ "
That affection for others was visible in her art, as was her deep spiritual connection to the subjects of her work.
While finishing “Step on Board,” Ms. Cunningham-Terry said, she could feel Harriet Tubman’s presence.
“I keep thinking that she’s up there watching,” she said. “So it’s really important that I do this right.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.