The temporary sculpture of Harriet Tubman outside City Hall was a traveling exhibit by Wesley Wofford. Credit: Conrad Benner / Streets Dept

Philly’s plans for a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman have changed. After community outcry over the way the project was commissioned, the original plan has been dropped in favor of an open call for artists to craft the structure, officials announced.

When the traveling statue “Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom” was unveiled in January, it was met by plaudits and celebration. The 9-foot bronze Tubman, holding the hand of a small Black child, held down City Hall’s North apron through March. Sculptor Wesley Wofford called the installation a “personal career highlight.”

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Some noted the statute was Philly’s first monument to a historical Black woman — yet was only temporary.

The structure drew such positive attention that Mayor Jim Kenney immediately supported a plan for a permanent piece, Marguerite Anglin, public art director at the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, explained in an article for online arts mag Hyperallergic.

So in March, the city proudly announced Wofford would sculpt a larger, permanent statue of Tubman, the legendary abolitionist who escaped to Philadelphia when she fled slavery in Maryland in 1849.

But the effort was not universally well received.

Several local Black artists and historians took issue with the closed-door commission process, The Inquirer reported in July, which had ended up awarding the job to a white man. No one expressed doubts over Wofford’s ability to depict Tubman, but some were dismayed over the fact that he would fiscally benefit from the project — it’s a $500,000 commission.

Now the city has reversed course. “The City of Philadelphia’s decision to do an open call for artists is in response to requests for minority, female, or local artists to be able compete to create the permanent Harriet Tubman statue at City Hall,” said Tuesday’s announcement from OACCE.

“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,” said Mayor Kenney in the announcement.

Before the change in plans, At-Large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas noted his displeasure in an Aug. 18 letter signed by six other members of City Council, namely:

  • Katherine Gilmore Richardson
  • Derek Green
  • Curtis Jones
  • Jamie Gauthier
  • Cherelle Parker
  • Helen Gym

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, a public artist with the Sankofa Artisans Guild and spokesperson for the Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee — organized in opposition to the original plan — made the letter public, per an Inquirer article.

The committee also collected over 1,000 signatures in support of the approach the city is now taking, including 750 on and at least 300 signatures Sullivan-Ongoza said were collected offline.

“WE WON !!!! Power to the people!!” Sullivan-Ongoza wrote on Facebook after today’s announcement by OACCE.

Councilmember Thomas also lauded the change of plans in a Twitter post, stressing the local aspect of artist recruitment.

There is another issue at play. From the reported complaints, it’s clear some Philadelphians strongly feel the eventual sculptor should be a Black person. The city noted that, “as with all OACCE open calls,” priority would be given to artists “who reflect the diversity of Philadelphia.”

The new process will include community input, with plans for the call to be officially put forward by the end of the year. The OACCE aims to select an artist by fall 2023, and is targeting fall 2024 for completion.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...