I gasped as the blanket was pulled off during Tuesday’s unveiling of the Harriet Tubman statue outside of City Hall.
I’d been holding my breath. The reveal of this statue felt personal to me because Tubman’s one of my heroines. For Christmas, I treated myself to an oil painting of her from Philly-based artist Christina Tarkoff’s “Women Who Shatter Barriers” series.
Thankfully, sculptor Wesley Wofford did justice by Tubman with his powerful The Journey to Freedom. In it, Tubman is depicted during her last run to Maryland, guiding a girl scheduled to be sold at auction as she escaped to freedom.
Unfortunately, Wofford’s magnificent statue will only be on display until the end of March.
I wish this were a permanent fixture in front of City Hall. Having a monument of a badass like Tubman in such a prominent place would make a dynamic statement about America’s promise of freedom — not just for white people, but for all. There’s no better location than our nation’s birthplace.
Unfortunately, though, the monument isn’t for sale. But maybe Philly could commission the artist to create something similar that could remain here forever.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed a reckoning over public art, most notably with the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when white supremacists protested the proposed removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Closer to home, Philly has made considerable strides toward creating more equity in the public art realm in recent years. The statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo was taken down from outside the Municipal Services Building, the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza was boxed up, and the Kate Smith statue from outside Xfinity Live! was removed.
Among the city’s 1,500 public sculptures, there are statues of numerous white male activists, authors, and generals, but only several of female historical figures. There are a few statues of Black men, the most recent being the one of Octavius V. Catto dedicated in 2017.
Keeping Tubman’s memory permanently alive in front of the seat of political power in Philly would be a reminder to all who walk by — including our city’s elected officials — of what she stood for, and hopefully inspire us to be equally as tenacious.
Tubman, who was born into bondage circa 1822, would be saddened by how, more than a century after she began leading others off of plantations, so many who look like her still lack basics such as affordable housing and are still mired in deep poverty.
She would be furious at how so many African American youngsters continue to be educated in chronically underfunded schools that graduate students unable to pass state exams for English, Algebra, and other subjects, and how so many Black and brown communities are plagued by gun violence.
Tubman would rage at how, after all of these years, Americans still have to fight for the right to exercise their constitutional right to vote. And at our ongoing struggle to get out from under the vestiges of slavery as well as the country’s racist and misogynistic origins that began when our nation’s founders denied equal rights to all.
I don’t think she’d be all that surprised, though, about how much drama we still have when it comes to teaching about race. Not just in Republican-led Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to make it easier for parents to sue school districts where they suspect race is being taught, but in certain parts of Pennsylvania, where the issue has come up at area school board meetings.
Erecting a permanent statue of Tubman in Center City would be a way to fight back against the racism that continues to haunt us. By pulling it down on March 31 as scheduled, we’re not paying proper respect.
Parents can’t rely on schools that are subject to political whims by legislators who use culture wars as a wedge issue to teach about Black history and the reality of race in America. They need to do it themselves.
I was around 11 when my mother, who worked as a school librarian, brought home a graphic novel about Tubman’s life. I remember being flabbergasted and also terrified as I read about her being whipped and hit on the head with an object thrown by an overseer. I slept fitfully afterward, thinking of Tubman running alone in the woods at night from Dorchester County, Md., where she was enslaved, to freedom in Philadelphia.
As we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, I suggest parents take their children to visit the Tubman statue. It won’t be here forever.