Harriet Tubman Statue Controversy in Philadelphia Draws National Attention and Petition

Philadelphia’s controversy over awarding a direct commission for a permanent monument to Harriet Tubman sparked widespread national interest and a split in the city’s statue advisory committee.

At a June 15 public consultation meeting, critics slammed city arts officials for giving the $500,000 commission to Wesley Wofford, who created the traveling ‘Journey to Freedom’ statue, without appeal. open to solicit submissions from other artists.

Since The Inquirer first reported on the statue dispute, news has spread around the world. Publications such as The Art Newspaper, Art Net News, Art Forum, The Griot, Essence.com and Hyperallergic.com have all picked up the story.

“We get messages from artists all over the country, and everyone has said that we have become their voice, because it happens all the time – that they are excluded from [opportunities] for public art commissions,” said Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, who spoke at the June meeting.

At that meeting of the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, Sullivan-Ongoza, a member of both the Sankofa Artisans Guild and the new committee Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman, alleged that Wofford “praises and was selling Tubman’s image to cities across the country.

READ MORE: City plan for $500,000 Harriet Tubman monument criticized for not being open to black artists

Last week, the Celebrating the Legacy committee launched a Change.org petition, asking Mayor Jim Kenney to issue an open call for other artists. As of Thursday, the petition had 258 signatures.

Kelly Lee, the city’s cultural director and executive director of the arts office, also known as Creative Philadelphia, announced the June meeting as one of many opportunities for the public to provide the arts office with ideas on what elements or themes he would like Wofford to include in the new permanent statue.

Lee said Wofford would take those ideas and create a different “Journey to Freedom” statue.

Instead, the city official mostly heard criticism at that meeting that the commission shouldn’t have automatically gone to Wofford. Critics said the city was deprived of seeing what other artists, especially black artists, might dream up.

Others said that at just 9 feet tall, the Wofford statue seemed too small compared to other statues at City Hall and needed to be more monumental, given Harriet Tubman’s iconic history as a abolitionist who led dozens of slaves to freedom.

In a recent interview, Wofford said it was hurtful to hear some criticism of the commission, both at the June meeting and since the story was widely reported.

Wofford said Sullivan-Ongoza’s “rent and sell” remarks led to him being personally attacked. Although he received letters of support from black and white artists saying he deserved the commission, the experience was not a pleasant one.

“I am first and foremost a human being,” the North Carolina artist told The Inquirer. “It was hurtful because the things she was saying are the antithesis of my intent and who I am.”

“It hurts to hear someone say things like that about you. Anyone who knows me knows my heart,” he added.

Wofford, who grew up the son of an electrician and an elementary school assistant teacher, said he did not come from a wealthy background. He said his father’s father couldn’t read or write. But at the same time, he said, he recognizes that there is such a thing as “white privilege.”

“I associate privilege with wealth. And the white privilege of being one step ahead in the nation whose rules were pretty much based on systemic racism. They both have the same root cause – money. And this generation in this country has been owned by white men. But none of my ancestors! he wrote to The Inquirer.

Wofford and Sullivan-Ongoza discussed their different perspectives on the Wesley Wofford Sculpture Studio Facebook page.

In their back and forth, Wofford told Sullivan-Ongoza that discussing the possibility of having an open appeal process involving other artists “is a valid conversation for the Philadelphia community. But you quoted these articles comparing me to plantation owners and it spread vicious and deeply hurtful personal attacks. You are also spreading many other untruths about me and my intentions in the world.

To which Sullivan-Ongoza replied, “I don’t deny that you feel aggrieved and attacked. So do I and others who are offended to see the image of Nana Harriet Tubman being rented or sold by white people. We don’t not attacking, we are challenging the lack of process.

Wofford’s studio rents the traveling Tubman statue to cities for about $2,000 a month, plus insurance costs. But Wofford said his company made no profit and was responding to a request from cities to post it.

The 9-foot “Journey to Freedom” statue was placed on the City Hall apron from January 11 to March 31 this year to celebrate Tubman’s 200th birthday, Black History Month and the Women’s History Month. (The Tubman figure is 7 feet tall, set on a nearly 2 foot granite base.)

Tubman, born a slave in Maryland in 1822, was a abolitionist who made his first escape in 1849 to Philadelphia. She returned south several times to lead at least 70 people to freedom on the Underground Railroad’s network of shelters and trails.

During the Civil War, she was a Union nurse and spy and led a raid on the Combahee River that freed 700 slaves in South Carolina.

Despite the petition against her, Lee said she intended to keep the commission for Wofford in place.

“Philadelphia would not commission this permanent statue of Harriet Tubman if it weren’t for the positive public response to Wofford’s temporary statue,” Lee said in a statement. “It would be inappropriate for the City to hire a different artist to recreate the artistic expression of Wesley Wofford.

She also said the city received more than 400 responses to its recent public survey about their ideas on the statue.

Lee sent The Inquirer copies of letters of support from four black people, three artists and Adrian Holmes, the director of the Alpha Genesis Community Development Corp. in Cambridge, Maryland, who commissioned Wofford to create a permanent statue of Tubman in Dorchester County, the abolitionist. Place of birth.

Yet the controversy has also spawned differences of opinion within the city’s Harriet Tubman statue advisory committee.

Lee provided a statement from Harriet Tubman’s maternal family members; two family members sit on the town’s advisory committee.

While the statement supports Wofford’s retention as an artist, the Tubman family acknowledged the lack of an open appeal:

“We think Mr Wofford is an excellent choice to create the permanent statue of Harriet Tubman. We agree that a call for artists may have provided an opportunity for an artist of color, but support Wesley Wofford who receives the commission.

But Cornelia Swinson, executive director of Johnson House Historic Site, who is also a member of the city’s advisory committee, agreed with those calling for an open appeal.

“I think the conversation in the community and with the [Tubman Legacy] committee, what they are asking for is appropriate,” Swinson told The Inquirer. “If it’s public money, it should be a public process. The artist the city chooses should go through the same process as anyone else when looking at public art.

Ashley Jordan, advisory board member and executive director of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, issued a general statement that neither supports nor opposes an open appeal process:

“Philadelphia is where Harriet Tubman found freedom, community and inspiration. I hope this statue can offer similar feelings and remind us all of the important role Philadelphia played in Harriet’s life. This recognition is long overdue, and I support it.

While Wofford’s race took place at the June 15 town meeting, supporters of the open call said they were primarily concerned with the commission award process, without seeking other proposals.

“He said I was having him attacked, but we dispute the process,” Sullivan-Ongoza told The Inquirer. “We are challenging an unfair and unfair process.”

“We are challenging an unfair and unfair process.”

Maisha Sullivan Ongoza

Sandra Mills, retired political director of the 1199C National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, works with Sullivan-Ongoza and the Tubman Legacy Committee.

“I’m very concerned that this is a flawed process,” Mills said. She added that she was part of the world committees that oversaw the selection of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks statues in Washington, DC.

“I don’t think Harriet Tubman’s legacy should be pushed aside by one person making the decision,” she said, referring to Lee.

“This is not a review of the statue of this man, we are talking about a future permanent statue. We are talking about a process moving forward,” Mills said.


Work produced by The Inquirer’s Communities and Engagement office is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of project donors.

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