Standing Up for Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad, is memorialized in countless dissertations, history books, novels, documentaries, artworks, songs, and movies.

According to the Monument Lab National Audit, Harriet is among the historical figures with the most public monuments. As of December 2021, there were 21 public memorials of Harriet in cities across the country.

A new statue of Harriet Tubman was unveiled on the grounds of Lincoln Park in Pomona, California on July 4, 2022.

Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) plans to award a no-bid commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the traveling statue, The Journey to Freedom, which was installed on the North Apron of City Hall from January 11 to March 31, 2022.

OACCE recently held a public engagement session to “help inform the design of this statue.”

Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin said the lack of an open call was due to the “tremendous outpouring of love and pride for the Journey to Freedom statue.” Maisha Ongoza, a member of Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, schooled Anglin and her boss, Chief Cultural Officer and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee:

I know the statue had a lot of emotions in people but I know a lot of artists who can generate that same level of emotion. That’s what artists do. … He [Wesley Wofford] doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture what people feel about Nana Harriet. Everyone feels her deeply that’s how important she is to us.

Ongoza and other community members protested the lack of transparency. The decision to award Wofford a no-bid commission was done without public input. Yet the public is expected to engage in “listening” sessions, surveys and other forums designed to pick their brain for free while an artist whose studio is located in the mountains of North Carolina, a former Confederate state, picks up a $500,000 check.

Wofford brings nothing unique to the table about Nana Harriet or her time in Philadelphia. There is no reason the public feedback that OACCE plans to share with Wofford cannot be shared in an open call with, among others, the artists who have already created Harriet Tubman statues.

Kelly Lee dismissed concerns about denying Black and other underrepresented artists an opportunity to compete for the commission. She said, “Our office has the ability to commission a specific artist to do a specific piece.” Lee’s office has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a performing artist to do a specific piece since 2017. The handful of non-bid contracts were awarded to conservation professionals.

The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no-bid commission. Ongoza told Lee: “Why can’t we have an open call process? We feel cheated that we can’t get a chance see what other artists could offer up for us. We’re just locked into what we’ve seen already when we know the potential of others is also just as great.”

Harriet Tubman made her escape from bondage under the cover of darkness. OACCE made its decision to give Wesley Wofford a half-million dollar commission under the cover of darkness. I am going to shine light on this “unique situation” by filing Right-to-Know-Law requests with the Mayor’s Office, OACCE and the Procurement Department. Kelly Lee wants the community to believe she can unilaterally award a non-competitively bid contract. She cannot. Sole source contracts must be approved in writing by the Procurement Commissioner, the Finance Director and the City Solicitor.

The struggle continues.

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