Kenney administration reverses decision, opens up Harriet Tubman statue process

Harriet Tubman
Wesley Wofford’s temporary installation was on display at City Hall between January and March of this year.
Metro file

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said the city will open up the process for the creation of a statue honoring African American history outside City Hall, reversing an earlier decision to hire the artist behind a temporary Harriet Tubman installation that was removed earlier this year.

The move, in March, to directly commission Wesley Wofford to make a permanent sculpture of the Underground Railroad hero drew blowback from community members and a group of City Councilmembers.

They pushed for the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) to institute an open submission process to open up opportunities for local artists and people of color.

OACCE said Tuesday that they will begin collecting applications that celebrate “Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contribution to our nation’s history” before the end of the year.

Maisha Ongoza, a member of the Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, which has advocated for the open call process, celebrated the about-face.

“We just knew that right was on our side. This was a struggle for equity,” she told Metro. “We just believed we were going to win.”

The organization, which formed after plans for a permanent statue were revealed in March, had been considering next steps, including the possibility of protesting outside City Hall, Ongoza said.

A petition circulated by the group calling for an open application process garnered more than 750 signatures.

Now, the committee wants to see greater racial representation in the artists selected for permanent public artwork.

Wofford, a white man from North Carolina, created “Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom,” a roaming sculpture that stopped in Philadelphia from January to March to commemorate Tubman’s 200th birthday.

In a statement distributed by OACCE, Wofford said he “fully accepts the decision” to issue an open call for the piece, which will be installed on City Hall’s northside.

Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer and OACCE executive director, said her office can issue direct contracts to individual artists but said the city will not be doing so for permanent public art in the future.

“It is important that we listen to the voices of those in the community and incorporate that feedback into our vision of commissioning this permanent statue,” Kenney said Tuesday in a statement.

Last week, Councilman Isaiah Thomas wrote a letter to OACCE about the Tubman statue arguing that city money should go toward supporting Philadelphia-based artists, particularly people of color given the subject matter. It was co-signed by six other Councilmembers.

“I am grateful to my colleagues for their support and thank the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy for the opportunity to keep our dollars local and illuminate a Philly artist,” Thomas said Tuesday.

Following the open call, OACCE plans to pick a winning artist by fall of 2023 and the artwork should be completed in late 2024, officials said.