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Philadelphia Unveils Proposals for New Harriet Tubman Statue

After a year of controversy, the city has narrowed down five options for a monument to the activist and abolitionist.

Now, selections for the final design have been narrowed down to five artists, each with a very different vision for the permanent statue honoring the Underground Railroad legend. Vinnie Bagwell designed a nine-foot bronze statue of a young Tubman freshly arrived in Philadelphia. The skirts of her dress would feature the faces of people who escaped slavery, Adinkra symbols, and portraits of other notable abolitionists including William Still, Thomas Garrett, Thaddeus Stevens, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass. Richard Blake’s proposal envisions Tubman standing beneath a liberty bell and lighting the path to freedom with a lantern, while Alvin Pettit conceived of a design that shows Tubman carrying a military rifle on her back, in commemoration of her leadership role in the 1863 Combahee Ferry Raid. Another proposal by Tanda Francis, who was also a finalist in New York City’s open design call for a Shirley Chisholm monument, imagined a statue with multiple intersecting silhouettes interspersed with polished bronze panels titled “Together In Freedom.” In Basil Watson’s design submission, he wanted to illustrate Tubman as a warrior and a leader. His proposed 13-foot statue would depict Tubman pulling three loosely modeled figures forward up a slope.

“The road to get to this point was needlessly bumpy,” Faye Anderson, a Philadelphia historian and director of the local history and preservation project All That Philly Jazz, told Hyperallergic in a phone call. Throughout the year, Anderson leads walking tours highlighting sites tied to Billie Holiday and The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Green. “We would have gotten to this point a year ago, if the mayor had not presumed that he could just hand out a $500,000 commission.”

“There was no choice other than to resist the city,” Anderson said. She admitted that she would have preferred last week’s virtual meeting to be in-person to better understand the details of each design submission, and expressed some hesitancy with the virtual gathering after the city’s transit authority similarly done when they had commissioned Tom Judd in 2021 to create the subway mural “Portal to Discovery” in the Fifth Street/Independence Hall station. The resulting mural included a misspelling of Frederick Douglass’s first name.

“This is unfolding at a time when the teaching of Black history is under attack,” Anderson continued. In late June, Philadelphia was at the center of heated protest when extremist group and critical race theory opponent Moms for Liberty held a conference in the city’s downtown. “Any opportunity we get to tell the story, we should take advantage of.”