Nana Harriet Tubman Committee Says ‘Enough!’

From Auburn, New York to Ypsilanti, Michigan, the commissioning of a Harriet Tubman statue has been a source of civic pride. In Philadelphia, the city where Harriet first experienced freedom, the public art acquisition process is tainted by white privilege, lies, and fuzzy math. The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) manipulated survey data to minimize public support for a permanent Harriet Tubman statue. OACCE claimed that only 25% of respondents want a statue of the American icon.

When OACCE was called out by a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the “full report and report summary were revised on November 22, 2022, clarifying the result for question one.”

The Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee has had enough of OACCE’s lies and “math not mathing.” During an interview on “Wake Up With WURD” Committee spokesperson Mama Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza said, “We cannot let this level of disrespect and incompetence continue to happen.”

Mama Maisha recounted that OACCE Director Kelly Lee told her that the City planned to award a no-bid commission to Wesley Wofford “because he’s in the system already. We can expedite it faster because he’s already in our system.” Her response: “Of course he is. White men are always in the system.” In a majority-minority city, two African American women are gatekeepers for white privilege.

These unaccountable bureaucrats want to sign the contract for the Harriet Tubman statue – or random African American figure – while their boss, Mayor Jim Kenney, is still in office. To do so, they have set an arbitrary timeline that would require artists competing for the commission to work like slaves through Christmas, Kwanzaa, Watch Night, New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend. By contrast, Lee and Anglin spoon-fed Wofford inside information for months as he prepared his proposal.

Mama Maisha notes the disparate treatment of Black and other underrepresented artists:

Now they got a speedy timeline. They want everything in by January, over the holidays. People busy, people committed to their families. They got stuff to do at the end of the year. So now you got a rushed timeline. You didn’t have a rushed timeline for Wesley Wofford. But now that you’re dealing with people of color and women, you got a rushed timeline.

The Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee said in a statement:

Enough! OACCE’s misinterpretation of the data and the lack of transparency in their decisions and actions minimize the importance of community engagement in public art acquisition. We demand a moratorium on the current statue commission Open Call until new, competent, transparent, and accountable oversight is created.

Mama Maisha told Attorney Michael Coard:

We want a moratorium on this Open Call, and we want Kelly Lee and Marguerite Anglin removed from any oversight. We’re going to the Mayor. We’re going to City Council. And if necessary, we will put boots on the ground in front of the Mayor’s Office. We’re ready to hit the streets.

If you have had enough of the coonery at OACCE, contact Mama Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza at (215) 385-0214 or Dr. Michelle Strongfields at (267) 231-0092; email: nanaharrietlegacydefense@gmail.com.

Origin of the Blues

The King of the Blues B.B. King famously told us why he sang the blues.

Legendary blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker contemplated an Origin of the Blues flow chart.

The Queen of the Blues Dinah Washington said “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a woman cryin’ for her man.”

Whatever the origin, all I want to hear is some down home blues.

Election Day 2022

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870.

Section 1 of the Reconstruction Amendment reads:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. Be careful how you vote.

Props to Pops

For years I could not get pass the optics of Louis Armstrong, mainly the broad grin and ever-present handkerchief. Fast forward to today, my love and respect for Pops’ musical genius and civil rights activism is immeasurable. At the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement, Armstrong cancelled a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union in support of the Little Rock Nine. Pops blasted Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, and President Eisenhower.

As a preservationist, I am in awe of Pops and Lucille Armstrong’s dedication to preserving his legacy in public memory. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the new Louis Armstrong Center provide a blueprint for historic preservation, as well as cultural heritage preservation.

Pops once said, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.” Behind closed tours, he had a lot to say about politics and racism. Decades after his death, the public will hear the full story of Louis Armstrong in the documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”

The legendary trumpeter got his flowers while he was alive. Pops is now getting overdue props for his resilience and resistance to white supremacy. “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” premieres October 28 on Apple TV.

Trane Wreck in Strawberry Mansion

In their latest court filing to gain possession of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that John Coltrane purchased in 1952, Ravi and Oran Coltrane claim their father’s beloved cousin, “Mary Lyerly Alexander, put in place a plan to unlawfully claim the Coltrane House for herself and her progeny instead of the remaining grandchildren of Alice Gertrude Coltrane, as required by the Will.” Ravi and Oran speciously claim that a typo is evidence that conveyance of the Philadelphia property was “fraudulent.” In the deed conveying the property to Norman Gadson in 2004, Coltrane is misspelled “Cultrate.”

Cousin Mary had a plan to preserve the John Coltrane House. After decades of indifference, do Ravi and Oran Coltrane now have a plan to rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark?

To catch up on the ongoing John Coltrane House family feud, go here.

Philadelphia Searches for African American Historical Figure to Celebrate

The PBS documentary HARRIET TUBMAN: VISIONS OF FREEDOM premiered on October 4, 2022.

From Frederick Douglass to the CIA, Harriet Tubman’s singular contribution to American history is recognized. Yet Philadelphia, the city where Tubman first experienced freedom, is scrounging around for an African American historical figure to celebrate. Without explanation, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) is seeking public input “for a permanent statue that celebrates Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contributions to our nation’s history.”

The survey asks five questions, all of which beg the question: Why is OACCE searching for random African American historical figures to replace Harriet Tubman? OACCE is heading down the same path of lack of transparency and incoherence that led to the reversal of their plan to award a no-bid commission to a white artist. OACCE Director Kelly Lee and Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin are cruising for another bruising.

Harriet Tubman Statue By Any Means Necessary

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

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.

Philadelphia Mayor Reverses Course on Harriet Tubman Statue

Celebrated author and civil rights activist James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In the face of community resistance to the award of a sole source contract to a white artist to create a permanent Harriet Tubman statue, Mayor Jim Kenney and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) announced the City is taking a “new direction.” Kenney said:

Our Administration and OACCE have always been committed to public art that celebrates and showcases the stories of African American contributions to this country’s history while also developing or supporting various opportunities to increase the diversity of artists. In that spirit, it is important that we listen to the voices of those in the community and incorporate that feedback into our vision of commissioning this permanent statue. Opening the process to a Call for Artists is the appropriate next step as we begin telling the powerful stories of historic Black figures to all who visit City Hall.

As I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Mayor had to reverse course. Procurement opportunities must be advertised on the City’s website and open to all bidders. But the fight is not over. I have outstanding Right-To-Know Law (RTKL) requests with the Mayor’s Office, which includes OACCE, and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

The RTKL contact in the Mayor’s Office asked whether I am still seeking the records “in light of recent developments in the proposed project.” If so, they asked for an extension until September 14. My response: No problem. I can wait. One would think Kenney and OACCE would be eager to silence critics who question whether four million people “positively reacted” to the temporary Harriet Tubman statue that was on display at City Hall for three months during the dead of winter.

I hope the records shed light on why OACCE Director Kelly Lee continues to say “the City’s contracting process allows OACCE to directly commission public artwork.” I sought records related to her assertion from the three agencies that must approve non-competitively bid contracts. Both the City Solicitor and Finance Director wrote: “The City does not have records responsive to your request.” The Procurement Commissioner claims her office did not receive my email.

In any case, time is running out on the Kenney Administration (his term ends on January 1, 2024). It remains to be seen whether an RFP will be issued. If one is issued, we will demand the recusal of Kelly Lee and Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin from the review and selection process. They orchestrated the exclusion of Black artists from competing for a public commission for a statue of a Black icon. History tells us one cannot be part of the problem and the solution.

We also will demand the recusal of the Harriet Tubman Statue Advisory Committee. Silence equals complicity. With the exception of Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Johnson House Historic Site, Committee members supported OACCE’s plan to give a white artist who has never won a public commission for a Harriet Tubman statue a $500,000 “direct commission.”

For updates on the open Call for Artists, sign up here.