SEPTA’s new mural has misspelled the first name of Frederick Douglass, prompting dismay
SEPTA and the artist have committed to correcting the error as soon as this week.
Faye M. Anderson, director of the public history project All That Philly Jazz, has made it her mission to preserve the public memory of Black Americans’ contributions to Philadelphia’s and the nation’s history.
She spoke out against a developer’s plans to demolish the Henry Minton house, where abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown gathered for meetings before Brown’s fateful raid on Harpers Ferry. She has faulted the Philadelphia Historical Commission for failing to protect Black historical sites.
As a community historian, Anderson is scheduled to lead a walking tour in October to commemorate the 200th birthday of William Still, the 19th-century Philadelphia abolitionist leader known as the father of the Underground Railroad.
So she was excited to see the new Portal to Discovery subway mural at the Fifth Street/Independence Hall station by Philadelphia artist Tom Judd, she said. The Inquirer published an article on it last week.
“When I saw William Still’s portrait, I was so happy,” Anderson said. “I was in a generally good mood. Then I saw the blackboard … .”
One of the paintings in the mural is of a hand-written quote from Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is written on a chalkboard and can be interpreted as being part of a school assignment.
At the top of the quote is written: “Fredrick Douglass,” with the world-famous abolitionist’s first name spelled wrong.
“Before I read the text, I noticed the misspelling of Frederick Douglass’ name,” Anderson said.
Anderson took to Twitter to call out SEPTA for installing a major public art project with such a glaring error at the subway station serving the city’s most important historic district.
“I finally checked out the Fifth Street subway murals. They’re beautiful but there’s one glaring error: Frederick Douglass’ name is misspelled,” she tweeted on Wednesday. @SEPTA Please tell the artist to correct the embarrassing misspelling ASAP.”
Anderson said she was particularly upset because Douglass was internationally known for his anti-slavery work. He often visited Philadelphia to meet with other abolitionists and for speaking engagements, some at Independence Hall.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported on Aug. 19, 1844, that Douglass spoke outside Independence Hall, then called the State House, to a crowd of of 200 people.
The Pennsylvania Freeman published its report on Aug. 22, 1844, noting: “The stand which Douglass occupied was close by the old Hall in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and he made one or two allusions to this circumstance with thrilling effect.”
SEPTA responded to Anderson on Thursday, the day after the tweet, saying the agency and the artist would correct the misspelling.
Judd said the chalkboard portion of the mural could be fixed as early as this week.
“There was no intention whatsoever — it was a mistake,” Judd said Thursday. “I’m going to correct it.”
By Friday afternoon, SEPTA had covered up the misspelling until it could be fixed, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said. As of Sunday, an awkward patch of what appeared to be paint-removal paper was in place.
“It was a spelling mistake. It wasn’t intentional,” Busch said. No one at SEPTA had caught the misspelling.
Nor had members of the Philadelphia Art Commission noticed it when Judd showed them his amended proposal for the work-in-progress, during a Zoom meeting, after addressing earlier concerns that it needed to better represent the diversity of the city’s history.
“The misspelling wasn’t picked up,” said Art Commission chair Alan Greenberger in an email Saturday. “However, in the Zoom era, it’s very hard to see proposals at that level of detail.”
A passion for public art
The misspelling follows another incident this month in which Philadelphians’ passion for public art generated news. A London-based coffee products company, Minor Figures, angered local artists and their supporters when it plastered ads for an oat milk product on top of street art.
This past winter, Philadelphia artists and the LGBQT+ community expressed outrage when Midwood Investment & Development, without warning, whitewashed the mural of queer activist Gloria Casarez on the old 12th Street Gym. That same property, at 204 S. 12th St., had been abolitionist Minton’s house.
SEPTA paid about $200,000 for Judd’s design and the installation of Portal to Discovery at the Fifth Street/Independence Hall station, part of a $20.4 million station renovation last year. Its Art in Transit program allots approximately 1% of station restoration costs for public art. The money is part of SEPTA’s budget for capital improvements, most of which comes from the state, Busch said
Busch said SEPTA was especially concerned that a mural attempting to show the historical record of Philadelphia had an error.
“We don’t want there to be a misspelling or any disrespect or disparaging” of that history, he said.
Judd acknowledged he had not realized he had misspelled Douglass’ first name until an exhibit of photographs of the mural project, “History in Motion,” went on display at the Woodmere Art Museum on Feb. 27 when Woodmere executive director Bill Valerio pointed it out.
Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.
He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.
“When you do public art, it’s in the public domain,” he said. “And if you don’t like people questioning you, you don’t do public art, you do your own thing in your private studio.”
“I just appreciate the interest and passion of people, even when it’s critical of me,” Judd said. “I feel honored to be part of a real conversation about what’s important.”
A pledge to be more vigilant
For the Fifth Street/Independence Hall station renovation project, SEPTA had convened a committee representing the neighborhood around Fifth and Market Streets to select from among various artists’ submissions for the subway art project, Busch said. That committee included Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, Ivy Barsky, former director and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, local artist James Brantley, who is represented by the Stanek Gallery in Old City, and Elizabeth Mintz, SEPTA’s director of communications.
Busch said there had never been a plan for that committee, or committees reviewing artists’ submissions at other SEPTA stations, to follow up and check for factual or spelling errors in the artwork.
He said SEPTA plans to be more vigilant about reviewing future art projects for spelling errors and accuracy.
The Portal to Discovery mural is the 20th commissioned art piece since SEPTA began its Arts in Transit program in 1998. The transit agency began to include various art projects — not all of them murals— at subway and transportation centers across the city as the stations were renovated, Busch said.
For example, a sculpture called 46th Street El Dancers, created by Philadelphia artist Barbara Bullock, is on display at the 46th Street Station of the Market-Frankford subway line. And an installation called Looking Glass, by Robert Woodward, is at the Girard Avenue Station of the Broad Street Line.
The Inquirer asked Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, what her agency does to make sure their murals are well-received in their community and accurate in historical detail.
“We try hard to be reflective and represent as many voices as possible in the development of our work,” Golden responded in an email. “People take our projects seriously because they co-owned throughout the community. If we learn there is a spelling mistake or one of our works is vandalized, we have a policy of acting quickly to resolve these issues.”
Richard Watson, a Philadelphia artist who with Walter Edmonds painted murals depicting Black resistance to racism at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, said people should not judge Tom Judd too harshly for the spelling mistake.
“We shouldn’t condemn him,” he said, adding that Judd had “good intentions and made a sincere effort to portray the authenticity of a historical situation.”
“He’s not a person of deception or self-service. He’s a very sincere artist and a person who has integrity.”