Journey to Freedom from White Privilege

17 Jul

At the height of the Black Power Movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” that excluded paintings and sculptures by African American artists.

The exclusion caused an uproar in the Black community. Historian John Henrik Clark, a consultant for the exhibition, later withdrew in protest. Dr. Clark told The New York Times:

In the light of the vocal role played by blacks in the current social upheaval, it is shocking that [Museum Director Thomas] Hoving and [Exhibition Curator Allon] Schoener have remained sheltered from urban life. They continue to persist in a paternalistic approach to black people – one that demands that whites define and describe the black experience, about which they know nothing.

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and his appointee, Kelly Lee, executive director of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), want to give a no-bid $500,000 commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the traveling statue, Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom. The commission would be for a new statue. Wofford has no unique insight into Harriet Tubman and knows nothing about Philadelphia, a city that is majority minority. His studio is located in the North Carolina Mountains.

The exclusion of Black artists has caused an uproar. OACCE’s plan to spoon-feed Wofford gives new meaning to “starving artist.” The data collected from the public survey “will help determine the theme and messaging of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue to make it unique to Philadelphia and inform the physical design and statue’s text.”

We are taking a page from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a watchdog group whose members included Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden and Harlem residents. We are protesting the planned exclusion of Black, women and other underrepresented artists from competing for the Harriet Tubman commission. Much to their chagrin, Mayor Kenney and Kelly Lee cannot just give Wofford the commission. While professional services contracts are not subject to the lowest responsible bidder requirement of the Home Rule Charter, OACCE must follow the procurement process and post a non-competitively bid contract opportunity to the eContract Philly website. Applicants will have at least 15 days to submit a proposal. When the notice of “New Contract Opportunities” is posted, we will give the signal.

We will share the Request for Proposals on social media and via email. Established artists should be able to respond within the timeframe. We already know the location of the statue, City Hall’s North Apron, and some design elements, granite base and at least nine feet tall. The theme(s) will be announced once the public survey data are compiled. So start visualizing your design. By the way, don’t be concerned that submitting a proposal will jeopardize future opportunities with OACCE. Kelly Lee and Jim “I’ll be happy when I’m not mayor” Kenney are lame ducks. Kenney leaves office in January 2024.

For updates, join the Facebook group, Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee. If you’re not on Facebook, send your contact info to phillyjazzapp@gmail.com to be added to the Harriet Tubman Statue mailing list.

Standing Up for Harriet Tubman

10 Jul

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 touring 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 allegedly 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 a former Confederate state picks up a $500,000 check. Wofford brings nothing unique to the table. There is no reason the public feedback that OACCE plans to share with Wofford cannot be shared with other artists in an open call.

Kelly Lee dismissed concerns about denying Black and other artists an opportunity to participate. She said, “Our office has the ability to commission a specific artist to do a specific piece.” Since 2017, her office has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a specific artist to do a specific piece.

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 hire Wesley Wofford under the cover of darkness. I am going to shine light on this “unique situation” by filing Right-to-Know-Law requests with OACCE and the Procurement Department. Kelly Lee wants the community to believe she can unilaterally award a non-competitively bid commission. She cannot. Sole source contracts must be approved in writing by the Procurement Commissioner, the Finance Director and the City Solicitor.

The struggle continues.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

3 Jul

In an Independence Day speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”


The world will come to Philadelphia in 2026 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote that rather than celebrate slaveholders (34 of the 56 Signers, including Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves), we should celebrate resistance to slavery as personified by Douglass.

The renowned orator’s presence in Philadelphia dates back to his escape from bondage. He arrived by steamboat from Wilmington in 1838. We can bring Frederick Douglass to life by staging public readings of his iconic speech at places and sites associated with the abolitionist, including Independence Hall, Mother Bethel AME Church, Concert Hall, the Union League of Philadelphia and Camp William Penn. Douglass was delivering a lecture at National Hall when the news came about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

At the same time, we should heed the advice that Douglass gave a Black activist shortly before his death: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Agitation means we resist Philadelphia insiders who presume to tell us how the United States Semiquincentennial should be commemorated. We should follow the blueprint of the July 4th Coalition which, in 1976, rallied between 30,000 and 40,000 people to protest the lack of diversity in official celebrations and the whitewashing of history.

You can read my op-ed, “This July 4th, let’s honor Frederick Douglass and ‘agitate’” here.