The five semi-finalist artists' designs for Philadelphia's forthcoming Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artists, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

Five possible designs for Philly’s new statue honoring Harriet Tubman were revealed Thursday night, and Philadelphians can now share thoughts on the options and vote for their favorite.

Nearly a year ago, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy (OACCE) reversed course on a plan to commission a permanent Tubman statue from artist Wesley Wofford, who’d created a temporary version that was briefly installed at City Hall. 

Advocates had voiced disapproval of the closed-door commission process, which swayed the officials to issue an open call for artists. The open call — which some still see as marred by a lack of transparency — resulted in five semi-finalists, who presented designs that will be voted on by the public through an online survey open through Sept. 1. 

Advisory committee members will weigh the public’s choice when they make their final decision, according to OACCE. 

The artists in the running are:

“We were very pleased that it was all very talented Black artists,” Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, spokesperson for the Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, told Billy Penn. The committee was critical to pressuring the city to open up the process, and have been frank about their preference that a Black artist be selected. 

What are the semi-finalists proposing? Here are five renderings of Tubman, one of which will eventually grace City Hall’s North Apron. 

Vinnie Bagwell: ‘City of Liberty’

Vinnie Bagwell’s rendering of a proposed Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artist, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

Vinnie Bagwell’s offering is called “City of Liberty.” It would be nine feet tall, similar to nearby statues, standing on a 6-inch black granite platform, and be made of bronze with black patina.

Tubman is 29 in this version, envisioned as commemorating the moment the civil rights leader realizes she’s free upon entering Philadelphia. “She gives thanks for being delivered to the City of Liberty,” said Bagwell, of the statue’s raised hands. 

Quakers and other abolitionists are featured on the hem of the dress, a nod to the movement already active in Philly upon Tubman’s arrival in 1849.  

“A young Black woman with unimpeachable integrity,” Bagwell said of her vision. “She is a woman of service.”

Bagwell mentioned that the artists were asked to craft a community engagement plan. She thinks she could reach out to highschoolers and collaborate with the Johnson House for a historical symposium, among other efforts. 

Richard Blake: An iconic, seasoned traveler

Richard Blake’s rendering of a proposed Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artist, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

Richard Blake’s offering is of Harriet, pistol tucked in her beltline, stepping from under the Liberty Bell.

In this rendering, Tubman stands 8.5 feet tall, and the whole structure reaches 10 feet high. “It’ll be very tactile,” Blake said, explaining his statue would be made of silicon bronze, which is chemically different from traditional bronze, mounted on a black granite base. 

Blake’s Tubman is more seasoned, with multiple trips back to the South behind her. “She’ll be an iconic symbol of Philadelphia and the gateway to freedom in the North,” per Blake. 

Tubman holds a lantern in hand, which Blake hopes can emit solar-powered light, if engineering specifics allow.

Tanda Francis: ‘Together in Freedom’

Tanda Francis’s rendering of a proposed Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artist, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

Tanda Francis’s proposal is entitled “Together in Freedom,” because Tubman’s “path to freedom always included us,” the artist said. The statue’s substrate would be blackened bronze, with areas of polished bronze.

Francis’s design is inspired by an open book, covering seven different chapters of the civil rights leader’s life. Silhouettes of fellow Africans enfold a large version of Tubman’s visage. At the base of the structure, which would measure 12 x 10 feet, sit panels meant to reflect a golden light and represent a Tubman quote about her passage into Pennsylvania.

As recounted by a biographer, it reads: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Francis wants the panels to be an interactive portion of the piece, able to be imprinted on with different texts from figures in Tubman’s life and messages deemed important to city residents, serving as a time capsule. 

“This piece for me has so much potential to be the glue that holds us together,” Francis said. 

Alvin Pettit: A military officer

Alvin Pettit’s rendering of a proposed Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artist, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

“I took the approach of showing Harriet Tubman as a military officer,” Pettit said.

An 1869 archival drawing of Tubman serving in the Civil War served as inspiration for his 11- to 12-ft. sculpture, which depicts her, rifle strapped across her back, at the scene of the Combahee Ferry Raid. The raid was an Union Army expedition made possible by Tubman’s reconnaissance work that freed over 700 enslaved people

“I’m showing her as a force to be reckoned with,” said Pettit, adding that her pensive visage in the piece shows her “maybe in a moment of quiet after the battle.”  

Tubman stands on a mountain of chains and shackles, with the ruins of a Confederate flag trampled under her left foot. “The symbol of her stomping out oppression,” Pettit said. 

Another Tubman quote — “And I pray to God to make me strong, and able to fight” — would likely be inscribed on the back of the platform. 

Basil Watson: ‘Keep Going’

Basil Watson’s rendering of a proposed Harriet Tubman statue. (Courtesy the artist, via the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy)

Basil Watson’s offering, called “Keep Going,” has several non-Tubman figures incorporated. The famed abolitionist is leading three others up from the South — the quartet is running up a hill — “not yet free, but in the middle of the struggle,” per Watson. 

Watson was clear his offering isn’t meant to be light fare, as he wants people to “feel the horror” of the journey, without portraying anyone directly as a victim. 

Capturing the flight to freedom as a “fierce battle through arduous terrain,” was his intent. 

“It’s not a pleasant sculpture to look at, it will force the viewer to ask questions about what this struggle is all about. “

What comes next?

The OACCE’s survey is live until midnight Sept. 1. 

After the flow of public feedback is stemmed, the semi-finalists will have until the end of the month to adjust their designs with regard to the public comments, if they so choose. 

The five artists will make their final presentation to the advisory committee in October, and the artist who is chosen will be selected by the end of that month. 

The city still aims to have the statue in place by fall 2024.

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...