Philadelphia picks winning design for Harriet Tubman statue after controversy over original choice

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The city of Philadelphia has picked the winning design for a Harriet Tubman statue outside City Hall after facing criticism over its original choice of a white artist who'd been selected without competition.

Alvin Pettit beat out four other semifinalists with a design called “A Higher Power: The Call of a Freedom Fighter." His nearly 14-foot bronze statue — the first of a Black woman who is a historical figure in the city's public art collection — will portray Tubman as a military leader and freedom fighter.

The famed abolitionist — who escaped slavery and led other enslaved Black women and men to freedom on the Underground Railroad — worked as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War, and helped lead 150 Black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina.

"She is shown in majestic prayer. Perhaps she is calling upon her faith or contemplating a battle,” said Pettit, a Baltimore-bred artist based in Jersey City, New Jersey, at a news conference Monday as a clay model of the forthcoming sculpture was unveiled at City Hall.

“This woman was a soldier, a scout, a union spy, a military strategist, and a war hero,” he said. “Therefore I captured a moment in time that shows her as a conqueror.”

Last year, Philadelphia city officials offered the commission to another artist, Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor from North Carolina. The city contacted Wofford after a traveling version of his 2017 statue of Tubman appeared at City Hall. A group of artists and activists protested, saying the city should have held an open competition to give a chance to other artists, including Black artists — especially since it was for a piece of public art.

“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” Dee Jones, a textile artist, told city officials and Wofford during a community meeting in June 2022, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “If it was an open call, and Wesley was chosen, it would be fine. But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big issue.”

Wofford ultimately dropped out, and the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, known as Creative Philly, issued an open call in August 2022 that attracted dozens of submissions.

After the finalists were chosen, the public got a chance to weigh in. City officials and the city’s African American Statue Advisory Committee, which included members of Tubman’s family, made the final selection.

Previously, Pettit has made monumental sculptures celebrating other historic Black figures, including educator and philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune and iconic singer Marian Anderson.

Pettit’s small-scale mockup shows Tubman with her hands folded in prayer and a rifle slung over her back. Leaning forward, she stands on a pile of broken shackles with a pistol tucked in her waistband and the edge of the Confederate flag visible underneath her foot.

“Just to see the intricate details in her face. The bravery, the strength and the resilience, that she's going to fight for her life,” Danetta Green Johnson, one of Tubman's descendants, told NBC10 Philadelphia.

The $500,000 project budget includes artist payment, site work and modeling, engineering, materials and fabrication costs. The money comes from the city’s operating budget. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2025.