Philly’s plan for Harriet Tubman monument comes under fire

Valerie Russ
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The city of Philadelphia wants people to help shape the theme of a permanent Harriet Tubman statue by responding to a public input survey by July 13. But a number of Black artists and historians are criticizing the process as being unfair and insulting.

That is because the commission was awarded to Wesley Wofford, the sculptor who designed the traveling statue “Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom,” that stood outside City Hall earlier this year, without seeking drawings or proposals from other artists.

“We feel cheated that we can’t get a chance to see what renditions other artists can offer us,” Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Sankofa Artisans Guild, told city public art officials at a June 15 virtual public meeting.

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The meeting was intended to seek input on the themes the new statue might include, but instead turned into a tense, angry discussion. People debated the process for the $500,000 commission and whether the race of the artist creating the image of perhaps the most iconic Black woman hero in American history mattered.

They said it was particularly insulting that Black American sculptors were not given the opportunity to show how they would have interpreted Tubman.

Wofford, who designed the traveling statue, is a white man, whose Wofford Sculpture Studio is based in North Carolina. He was part of the meeting, also.

Some said they were not opposed to the commission solely because Wofford is white. They talked about the inequity of the commission being “just given to him.”

“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” said Dee Jones, a textile artist. “If it was an open call and Wesley was chosen, it would be fine. But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big issue.”

Wesley Wofford's bronze sculpture, Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, on April 3, 2022, in White Plains, New York. (Brian Logan/Dreamstime/TNS)

However, Sullivan-Ongoza said that, in this case, the race of the artist who creates a permanent Tubman statue in Philadelphia is important.

“Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one white person would benefit off her person. And now we have someone white benefiting off of her,” Sullivan-Ongoza said at the meeting.

On Friday, Sullivan-Ongoza told The Philadelphia Inquirer: ”Now he (Wofford) is renting and selling her from city to city, just like from plantation to plantation. It’s just awful, and it enrages me.“

Tubman, born enslaved in Maryland in 1822, was an abolitionist who escaped and later returned south several times to lead at least 70 people to freedom on the Underground Railroad network of safe houses and trails.

She made her first escape in 1849 to Philadelphia, where she worked with William Still, the Underground Railroad leader here, and spoke at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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As a Civil War hero, she was a Union nurse and spy and helped lead a raid on Combahee River that freed about 700 enslaved people in South Carolina.

Sullivan-Ongoza said several artists formed a grassroots organization, “Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman,” in March after they learned that the commission for a permanent statue had been awarded. The group uses the title “Nana” as a term of respect for Tubman as a revered elder, she said.

Kelly Lee, the chief cultural officer for the city and the executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy (also known as Creative Philadelphia), described the public meeting on June 15 as “visceral at certain points; it was hard to hear and it was hard for the artist to hear.”

In an interview Friday, Lee said that normally the city does seek open calls for public art commissions and agreed that it is important to have Black artists and other artists of color included as creators of public art. For example, in May, the city announced five finalists selected to create a statue of opera singer Marian Anderson.

Lee said the city chose Wofford to make a permanent statue because of the “outpouring of love and emotion,” from the people who came to visit the touring statue.

“When people saw it, they didn’t focus on who the artist was,” Lee said. “That statue resonated so deeply. People said it captured her spirit. It captured her essence. … I saw people crying when it first arrived and I saw them crying when it was time for it to leave.”

But Sullivan-Ongoza said, “(Wofford) doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture or express the energy and power that was Nana Harriet Tubman. Most gifted artists are able to generate that kind of emotion.”

Earlier in the week, Jacqueline Wiggins, a retired educator who conducts tours of Black historic sites, also weighed in on the commissioning process. “The concern for me is the unfairness of it all,” she said. “This artist (Wofford) gets to bat two times over Black American sculptors in the city.”

Some want a commissioning process do-over

Wofford, who spoke at the Zoom meeting, said he understands that there has been an underrepresentation of public art featuring Black subjects, and that Black artists have historically been underrepresented, as well.

“You say you understand the importance of Black artists, then how can you correct that wrong?” Jones asked him.

“I don’t know how to correct that wrong,” Wofford said. “I’m not a city, or a commissioner.”

Michelle Strongfields, a physician and Black community health organizer, called on Wofford to “resign this commission and allow the process to begin anew.”

Marguerite Anglin, the city’s public art director, said the country needs to be healed because it has not told the complete stories of Black Americans.

“Part of that healing is not just Black artists only telling Black stories,” she said. “We need America to embrace Black stories. We need everyone to understand our stories.”

Karen Sutton, a tour guide at City Hall, told Wofford, “I loved the statue from the moment I saw her. … It was moving and I was grateful she was there.”

“It doesn’t matter what color you are, you just got it,” she said. “I looked at her and could not be more proud of Philadelphia that we are commissioning a permanent statue of her.”

There are about 12 monuments to Harriet Tubman around the country, mostly at parks, museums and visitors’ centers. On June 3, 1944, the United States launched the SS Harriet Tubman, a Liberty Ship built in Maine during World War II. It survived the war, but was eventually scrapped in 1972.

How does this commission compare with others?

Anglin said the permanent Tubman statue, which is expected to be at least 9 feet tall and cost about $500,000, will be made of bronze, with a granite base.

By comparison, the city paid approximately $750,000 in what Lee said was an unconfirmed figure for its share of the cost of installing the 12-foot-tall, $1.5 million Octavius V. Catto statue at City Hall’s south apron in 2017. Most of the funding for the Catto statue was raised by private donors, Lee said. It was sculpted by Branly Cadet, a Black artist from California.

Also in 2019, the city unveiled a 5-foot-4 statue of a Black girl playing basketball at the Smith Playground in South Philadelphia that was a $25,000 commission. The artist, Brian McCutcheon, is a white man from Indianapolis.

Confusion about whether the commissioned statue is a copy

Some of the speakers at the virtual meeting criticized the city for settling for a “copy” of the traveling statue that stood on the north apron of City Hall from Jan. 11 through March 31 in honor of Tubman’s 200th birthday.

Ken Johnston, a walking artist who has completed a couple of 100-plus-mile walks tracing Tubman’s Underground Railroad sites, worried that Wofford was going to make a Philadelphia-centric copy of the traveling statue.

“With the statue continuing to tour the U.S., why would anyone want to visit Philadelphia to see (it) when they can see one-of-a-kind originals in either Wilmington, Bristol or Harlem?” Johnston said.

Lee said people have misunderstood the nature of the commission.

“Wofford is not re-creating or replicating a ‘Journey to Freedom,’“ Lee said. “He is being commissioned to create a Harriet Tubman statue that would be as impactful and have the same qualities as the ‘Journey to Freedom’ that resonated so deeply with Philadelphians, such as Harriet Tubman’s strong facial expression, her likeness, her fierceness, her essence and her grit.”

The 7-foot touring statue is itself a copy of the original 9-foot “Journey to Freedom” statue, whose unveiling was announced in 2019 as a commission for a private building in Dallas.

That statue was not available to be seen by the general public, but when he posted photos of the original Tubman statue online, Wofford said the response on social media was so great that he created the smaller, traveling statue to take to a number of cities.

In June, Wofford said he has taken it to 10 cities so far, with an additional 12 cities already scheduled.

While the city said it wants the commissioned statue completed by November 2023, Lee said the contract hasn’t been signed, and details of how it should look will be determined by the public input process that began at the recent public meeting.

The public survey is due by 5 p.m. on July 13, but other public meetings will be held.

“This project is a very exciting thing for the city to have one of the first statues of a historic African American female on the apron of City Hall,” Lee said.