Can I get an amen for Philly’s decision to commission a permanent Harriet Tubman statue? | Jenice Armstrong
When the city's new monument to Harriet Tubman goes up in 2023, it will be the first public statue honoring an African American woman. May it be the first of many.
Can I get an amen?
Last week, Philadelphia announced that we’re getting a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman. It’s the best news I’ve heard come out of City Hall in a while, something pure and simple to be happy about.
Earlier this year, the city brought a temporary statue of Tubman to stand in front of City Hall for a few months. It was a nice gesture, but I never liked the idea that the Harriet Tubman statue on display in front of City Hall would only be here for a hot minute.
I have long been inspired by Tubman’s strength and bravery. Last Christmas, I even gifted myself an oil painting of her to hang in my home so that every day I can look at her face and be reminded to fight a little harder. (And trust me, I’m not the kind of person who goes around buying oil paintings!) Tubman lived in Philadelphia for a time after she escaped to freedom in 1849, and I feel strongly that our city needs to embrace this bit of our history, as I wrote back in January when the temporary statue was unveiled.
Among the city’s 1,500 public sculptures, there are countless depictions of white male activists, authors, and notables. The permanent Tubman statue is likely to become the city’s first monument honoring an African American woman. (Fund-raising is underway for one honoring singer Marian Anderson to be located on the front steps of the Academy of Music.) It’s about time — and hopefully, Tubman and Anderson are not the only ones. In a city well known for our art, it’s time to harness our rich, multicultural history for display.
“We have a lot more work to do if we are going to accurately represent people of color through our public art,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas told me when I called to learn more about the permanent statue. “People come to our city for our artwork and for our museums, and it’s imperative that we have images that are reflective of the constituents who live here.”
The new Tubman statue — which will cost the city about $400,000 and will be placed somewhere on the apron of City Hall — isn’t slated to be ready until November 2023, but I was so eager to learn more about the new Tubman monument that I called up sculptor Wesley Wofford. He created the temporary Tubman memorial and has also been commissioned to design the permanent one.
As soon as I logged on to our Zoom meeting, my eyes started roaming around his studio. Wofford was sitting in front of a partially completed clay statue of Tubman that he’s making for an installation in Cambridge, Md., where she was enslaved. The sculpture shows the abolitionist with an arm reaching out toward a child version of herself. The other hand, which wasn’t attached yet but sitting nearby, reaches up toward the North Star. It’s going to be as magnificent as the temporary exhibit currently on loan in Center City.
Once that’s installed in September, Wofford will turn his attention to ours. As we talked, he brought up the issue of race, saying, “The elephant in the room is the color of my skin and my gender. It’s humbling to be asked — and it’s also intimidating.” Some have expressed concern that a Black artist wasn’t the one doing this work.
But I don’t think she would mind. After creating his first likeness of Tubman at the request of a client in 2019, Wofford became intrigued with the idea of using art to make change. “If I am going to spend 18 months on an object, I want that object to make a difference in the world. I want to participate in much-needed change in this country regarding our public spaces and the lack of cultural diversity,” said Wofford, who spends 10 hours a day sculpturing. “It just kind of awakened an activism that I didn’t have before. I’m not all that interested in just sculpting another white man.”
Wofford’s new focus coincided with the 2019 movie Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo as Tubman, as well as a national reckoning over public art that began in earnest after a white supremacist killed nine Black churchgoers at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
Following that tragedy, Confederate memorials and symbols started getting torn down in Southern states. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported last month that 409 Confederate memorials have been removed, relocated, or renamed since 2015. Closer to home, we’ve seen the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo removed amid protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 and the ongoing legal battle over the statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philly’s Marconi Plaza.
“It’s a massive wave that’s happening,” Wofford said about the changing landscape of public art. He told me that this moment is akin to a “renaissance in public figurative sculpture in this country that’s been needed.”
Philadelphia is taking the right step in commissioning the permanent statues of Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Let’s hope that this is the start of our own public art renaissance.