Philly revises plan for Harriet Tubman statue after pushback from Black artists

Sculptor Wesley Wofford, who is white, was initially chosen to do the statue without an opportunity for Black artists to apply
"Harriet Tubman, the Journey to Freedom" statue which stood at Philadelphia City Hall from mid-January until March 2022.
"Harriet Tubman, the Journey to Freedom" statue which stood at Philadelphia City Hall from mid-January until March 2022. Photo credit Racquel Williams/KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — After months of controversy and complaints, the City of Philadelphia is rethinking the commissioning of a permanent Harriet Tubman statue at City Hall and now putting out an open call for Philadelphia artists’ proposals.

A traveling statue of Tubman sat on the north apron of City Hall from Jan. 11 to March 31, 2022, to celebrate her 200th birthday.

That statue garnered so much attention and positive feedback — 4 million visits or views of the statue on social media — that the city asked Wesley Wofford, a white man from North Carolina who created the traveling sculpture, to create a permanent statue.

“The city wanted to purchase that statue. And when we learned that we could not, the city decided to commission the same artists and Wesley Wofford to create a permanent statue in order to basically respond to the city's sort of overwhelming response to this statute,” said City of Philadelphia Chief Cultural Officer and Director of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy Kelly Lee.

But in the process, the city failed to put out an open call for artist submissions. That's where pushback came, particularly from Black artists.

“We did hear immediately from some members of the community, particularly Philadelphia’s artist community who were very disappointed that other artists, particularly local artists, artists of color, or female artists would not even have the opportunity to do the statue because it was a direct commission," said Lee.

"I'm not in support of this artist doing the work, nothing personal against him," said Leslie Garrett during a live online discussion about the permanent statue in June.

"It should have been brought to the community, and we should have been made aware and been able to select an African American sculpture artist."

"Wesley, all due respect, your work is great. It's not about you, personally. It's all about the process. The process, unlike Harriet Tubman, was not equitable. It's what she fought for," said Dee Jones in the session.

Lee said that feedback has led them to cancel Wofford’s contract and put out an open call for artists to submit proposals for a permanent statue.

“It was more important to listen and respond to the concerns of the community than stick to our original process just because we could,” Lee added.

Lee said the application process will be open to everyone, and will go out before the end of 2022.

The hope is to have an artist and design announced by next fall, and to have a permanent Tubman statue at City Hall by 2024.

Wofford said he fully accepts the decision and looks forward to seeing more monuments celebrating these untold American stories.

Click here for details on the City of Philadelphia’s open call for artists.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Racquel Williams/KYW Newsradio