Harriet Tubman is Philadelphia’s first monument to a historical Black woman…but it’s only temporary

You can count the city’s statues of women in history on one hand.

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Conrad Benner / Streets Dept
Conrad Benner

Update, March 10: The city is commissioning a permanent statue of Tubman to replace the temporary one. By the same artist, it’ll be even larger and more prominent.

Philadelphia last week unveiled a temporary monument to American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman. Titled “The Journey to Freedom,” the statue will stand on City Hall’s north apron through Black History Month and Women’s History Month, then depart for New York as it continues its trip around the U.S.

The traveling sculpture by artist Wesley Wofford, whose local stay through the end of March was organized by Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, is significant.

It also underscores longstanding problems with Philly’s vast collection of monuments.

This temporary tribute to Tubman is only the third statue of a historical woman in the entire city, along with Joan of Arc and Mary Dyer. And it’s the very first to a Black woman.

Tubman’s is also the first statue of a historical woman at Philadelphia City Hall, a site that hosts many monuments (including the 2017 addition of Octavius Catto, its first of a Black man). On a recent weekday, “Journey to Freedom” attracted many curious passersby, who stopped, read the plaque, and took photos. It’s getting noticed. It’s Harriet’s memory coming alive in the heart of our city.

“Philadelphia holds a specific relevance to Harriet’s story as the city she found safe harbor in after her escape from Maryland,” Wofford said in a statement, “as well as staging many of her returning raids to free others from the bondage of slavery.”

In 2017, Philly lost one of its then-three monuments to notable women. In a couple of months, history will repeat itself when Tubman departs.

Necessary clarification: there are depictions of women in other public art around Philly, but not designed to honor a specific person or historical event. The many feminine forms depicted in the city’s water fountains, for example. Or Simone Leigh’s Brick House sculpture, installed in 2020, which does not depict an individual.

There is room for debate on Brian McCutcheon’s 2019 statue, titled “MVP,” which “depicts a young, African American female basketball player” modeled after a 12-year-old who lived near the artist’s studio. That artwork was officially inspired by Ora Washington after the artist’s original choice of Dawn Staley was denied by City officials.

Either way, when you walk around Philadelphia and see a monument in the form of a statue, it almost always represents a historical white man.

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Conrad Benner / Streets Dept

What does it mean for Philadelphians and tourists to see statue after statue depicting only the achievements of men, nearly all of them white? What does it mean when only the historical contributions of white men are honored in our public space?

There are many forms of public art — murals, sculptures, graffiti, and street art among them — that can hold a mirror to society and offer beauty, introspection, and connection to our world.

But monuments as we know them have a fairly straightforward job: to reflect back the histories we collectively deem are worthy and critical to remember. History can feel infinite, but public space is not. The choice of which histories, figures, and lessons from our past we choose to elevate is incredibly important.

Monuments are distinguished by their staying power and stature. A larger-than-life-sized statue made of heavy materials like metal or stone projects a sense of permanence that murals can not.

In Philadelphia, murals come and go constantly, including tributes to historical figures like Gloria Casarez. Noam Chomsky’s mural lived a shorter life than the philosopher himself, being destroyed for new construction in 2013. A mural to legendary poet Ursula Rucker was created in 2014 only to come down a few years later, also because of development. (Ursula has a new mural as of 2021, though!)

In this city, a mural can come down at the whim of a developer, while the only way a monument has come down in recent memory has been through a series of unprecedented and consistent public protests.

White men are not the only people who contributed to the history of Philadelphia and the United States. That is such an obvious truth it feels silly to say, but it’s a truth not given dignity when it comes to the monuments providing narration as people move through the city.

Tubman and so many other history-makers deserve to have their memories stand in our public space. An ephemeral tribute is nice, but far from enough.