Harriet Tubman Statue By Any Means Necessary

2 Oct

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy’s announcement that there will be an open Call for Artists for Philadelphia’s permanent Harriet Tubman statue struck the wrong chord. Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin said:

Yes, the open Call for Artists for this public art project will welcome proposals for a permanent statue that celebrates Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contribution to our nation’s history. This will be a true open Call for Artists, where the City will be looking for a wide variety of original and unique ideas from many artists.

First, Harriet is sui generis. She cannot be replaced by a random African American historical figure. Second, the Managing Director’s public art policy directive establishes criteria for artwork placed on public property. The artwork must commemorate individuals who “made significant contributions to Philadelphia, have had significant impact on Philadelphia and beyond, and represent broadly shared community values.” In my op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote:

Representation matters, but when it comes to artwork on city property, who is represented matters. Anglin said that the city “will be looking for a wide variety of original and unique ideas from many artists.” But the city’s public art policy does not allow for that.

The short list of African American historical figures who meet the city’s public art policy includes Malcolm X. Like Harriet, Malcolm was prepared to use a firearm and any means necessary in his pursuit of freedom and racial justice.

Malcolm X, aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was a world-renowned human rights activist, racial justice advocate and cultural icon whose charismatic leadership laid the foundation for the growth of Sunni Islam among African Americans. Today, an estimated 200,000 Muslims live in Philadelphia, the majority of whom are Black.

Malcolm has been memorialized in books, movies, music, visual art, and a U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage Stamp.

In addition to Malcolm X Park and murals, Malcolm’s time in Philadelphia is commemorated with a state historical marker that notes his leadership of Nation of Islam Temple No. 12 in the 1950s. Will the City’s request for proposal include Malcolm X, “Our Black Shining Prince?” If not, why not?

John Coltrane House Family Feud Update

18 Sep

In the Before Times, I celebrated John Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926) by leading a walking tour. We would meet at Coltrane’s Walk of Fame plaque where I would give an overview of the legendary saxophonist’s time in Philadelphia and talk about the John Coltrane House.

In light of the drama unfolding in the Court of Common Pleas, I am not in a celebratory mood. Coltrane’s sons, Ravi and Oran, are suing Norman Gadson’s daughters, Aminta and Hathor, for possession of the Philadelphia rowhouse that their father purchased in 1952 and where he composed Giant Steps.

They claim Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” Gadson into buying property that she had no right to sell. Gadson paid $100,000 for the National Historic Landmark in 2004. That same year, John and Alice Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills, NY was at imminent risk of demolition.

On August 31, 2022, the third anniversary of Alexander’s death, Defendants allege in court filings that Cousin Mary “extinguished” Ravi and Oran’s remainder interest in the property with their knowledge and acquiescence. Defendants further claim that if they lose possession of the property, they should be reimbursed more than $220,000 for costs incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the Coltrane House. They claim “Plaintiffs would have no remainder interest were it not for the activities of Gadson and his successors.”

While the claims and counterclaims fly back and forth, I think about that hot and humid Saturday morning when something – or someone – told me to go check on the Coltrane House. Later that day, I learned Cousin Mary had died.

I vowed at Cousin Mary’s homecoming celebration that I would do everything I could to save the National Historic Landmark.

Little did I know my successful nomination of the John Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk would set in motion this family feud.

Ravi and Oran have cast aspersions on Cousin Mary. The court will decide who owns the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse. But for nearly 40 years, Cousin Mary devoted her life to preserving John Coltrane’s legacy in public memory. On July 6, 2004, she agreed to sell the property to Norman Gadson, a friend and jazz enthusiast who shared her vision for a Coltrane Museum and Cultural Center. Three months earlier, random Coltrane aficionados, preservationists and local officials saved from demolition Ravi and Oran’s childhood home in Dix Hills, NY. The place where their father composed A Love Supreme.

John Coltrane House Family Feud

21 Aug

Scottish historian Sir Walter Scott observed, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

Ownership of the John Coltrane House has been a tangled web ever since the property owner of record, Norman Gadson, died in 2007. I raised the “tangled title” issue with Ravi Coltrane on March 13, 2020. During the conference call, Ravi said organizations raising money in the name of John Coltrane need the permission of the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane. That “ties their hands unless there’s a partnership with the estate.” That was my first and only conversation with Coltrane’s son.

In a lawsuit filed on April 27, 2022, Ravi and his brother Oran allege they are the rightful owners of the Strawberry Mansion rowhome that their father bought in 1952. Coltrane and his first wife, Juanita “Naima” Austin, conveyed the property to his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, on March 24, 1958.

Coltrane’s sons claim their father’s beloved cousin, Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” (read: deceived) Gadson into paying $100,000 to purchase her life estate in the Coltrane House. According to Alice Gertrude Coltrane’s Last Will and Testament, Cousin Mary had “the right and privilege to live on the premises at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during her lifetime.” Her life estate ended on August 31, 2019.

My successful nomination of the Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk is cited in the Complaint and included in an exhibit, but I found out about the lawsuit by happenstance. The lawsuit was also a surprise to the defendants, Aminta Gadson Weldon and Hathor Gadson. A spokesperson for the defendants’ lawyer, Edward A. Fox, said in a statement:

The Early-Gadson family was enormously surprised and saddened to learn of the litigation filed by John Coltrane’s sons given the family’s 18-year history of ownership, preservation, and deep commitment to this National Historic Landmark, with the full knowledge of the Coltrane family.

The parties have clammed up. So I decided to follow the money to try to untangle the web of claims and counterclaims.

The John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York is owned and stewarded in partnership by the Town of Huntington and Friends of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, a nonprofit organization. On September 21, 2021, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Friends of the Coltrane Home a grant of $1 million “to support the preservation of the Home, enhance organizational capacity, and expand programmatic offerings.” In announcing the grant, the Mellon Foundation notes: “While the funds received from the Mellon Foundation will go a long way to renovating the Home and transforming it into an innovative museum, additional support will be needed before the Home can be opened to the public.”

The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) has raised $855,000 for the Coltrane House, including a $300,000 grant awarded under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program on May 25, 2021. The reimbursable grant is for “engineering and renovation costs associated with façade remediation activities at the Coltrane House Property.” The grant ends on June 30, 2023.

The Mellon Foundation awarded SMCDC $500,000 on December 10, 2021. The two-year grant is “to support organizational capacity and development for a community-focused project honoring the legacy of John Coltrane.” SMCDC needs an additional $5 million before the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center can be opened to the public.

According to their IRS return, Friends of the Coltrane House received $18,100 in contributions in 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the nonprofit received a combined total of $296,502 in contributions. Their 2013 Indiegogo and 2018 Kickstarter fundraisers were unsuccessful. Both campaigns closed after raising less than $9,000.

The O’Jays warned us that money can “do funny things to some people.” Ravi and Oran Coltrane’s lawsuit was filed four months after SMCDC received the Mellon Foundation grant. Defendants claim SMCDC has “five other grant applications pending.” Did money and the lack of permission from the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane trigger the lawsuit?

My lived experience tells me there’s more to the story. Stay tuned to “John Coltrane House Family Feud” as I follow the money.

Harriet Tubman Statue Update

14 Aug

Philadelphia’s plan to award a non-competitively bid commission for a Harriet Tubman statue has encountered fierce resistance (here and here).

Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee sent an open letter to Mayor Jim Kenney requesting a meeting:

We write this letter to request a meeting with you; preferably one day this month. We will make ourselves available according to your schedule. We want. We are aware you are in support of this decision.

The Committee Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman takes extreme exception to this decision announced by the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) to award a no bid commission (in the amount of $500,000) to create a permanent statue of Nana Harriet to Wesley Wofford, where an Open Call Process was not considered. Such actions prevent other artists from the opportunity to compete for a contract/commission especially for such an iconic, historical, and culturally important figure as Nana Harriet Tubman!

Our research shows that the OACCE has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a performing artist to do a specific piece in 2017. The handful of non-bid contracts was awarded to conservation professionals. As one committee member has stated, “The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no bid-commission.”

Simply stated, as Philadelphia residents, we are being deprived of a free and open process to see other versions of Nana Harriet through the creative visioning of other artists, especially Black women and other People of Color. Our committee rejects this blatant disregard of protocol and nationally accepted best practices for public art procurement, coupled with the dismissal of community voices.

Mayor Kenney recently announced the African American Museum in Philadelphia will relocate to the former Family Court building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In a tweet, he said, “Looking forward to the proposals of the four chosen development teams who will reimagine the sites.”

While Mayor Kenney looks forward to the competing visions for the museum’s new home, Philadelphia residents are supposed to accept the vision of Kenney’s handpicked artist, Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor whose studio is located in the North Carolina Mountains. The Mayor and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee want to award a no-bid commission to Wofford to imagine a Black icon who was the most celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad and Civil War hero.

The competitive procurement opportunity for the adaptive reuse of the Family Court building is managed by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). The RFP affirms: “The City’s and PIDC’s primary objective in issuing this solicitation is to select a diverse, experienced, capable and qualified development team that will ultimately plan and implement a dynamic commercial development that significantly enhances and complements the existing cultural, commercial and residential developments along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and to maximize the value of the Property for the City.”

The focus on diversity and best qualified applicant begs the question: What is the primary objective in awarding a non-competitively bid commission to Wesley Wofford who is batting 0 for 23 on public commissions for Harriet Tubman statues?