Philadelphia Courts Controversy with Commission of Harriet Tubman Statue

The City of Philadelphia has come under fire for commissioning a statue of Harriet Tubman from a white sculptor without opening the field of competition to other artists, including those of color. After Wesley Wofford’s Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, a traveling bronze sculpture depicting the famed abolitionist leading a child by the hand, generated tremendous positive attention during its three-month stay outside Philly’s City Hall earlier this year, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (aka Creative Philadelphia) offered Wofford a $500,000 commission to create a similar, permanent monument to stand in the same place.

Following the awarding of the commission, city officials sent out a public survey seeking opinions from members of the public in regard to the project, with a closing date of July 13. During a virtual meeting on the topic, held by Creative Philadelphia on June 15, a number of Black artists expressed disappointment that the commission had gone to a white artist. Dissenting opinions were divided among those who believed the monument to Tubman—who escaped enslavement in mid-nineteenth-century Maryland and risked her life to lead more than seventy people to freedom via the Underground Railroad before becoming a Civil War hero for her efforts to free some seven hundred enslaved people in North Carolina—should be created by a Black person, and those who were open to a person of any race creating the monument, so long as this artist was chosen through an open competition.

“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” textile artist Dee Jones explained during the meeting. “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.”

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, of the Sankofa Artisans Guild, said she and others felt “cheated” by the commissioning process and contended that Tubman “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.”

Michelle Strongfields, a doctor and Black community health organizer, demanded that Wofford resign the commission in order to open the field to competition, while Marguerite Anglin, Philadelphia’s public art director, asserted that “part of  . . . healing is not just Black artists only telling Black stories. We need America to embrace Black stories,” she continued. “We need everyone to understand our stories.”

Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer and the executive director of Creative Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the city typically stages open calls for public art commissions and that it actively seeks to include artists of color, including Black artists. Lee explained that the city had decided to hire Wofford to create a permanent monument to Tubman after seeing the reaction the traveling statue of the iconic abolitionist engendered.

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