Journey to Freedom from White Privilege

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

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.

Harriet Tubman@200

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad. Like most enslaved Black Americans, she did not know her date of her birth so we remember Harriet on the day of her death, March 10, 1913.

The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of Temple University Libraries is holding a two-day bicentennial celebration of the “Moses of Her People” on Tuesday, March 15 and Wednesday, March 16. The online events are free. Registration is encouraged.

Philadelphia is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom,” by Wesley Wofford at City Hall through March 31, 2022.

Also at City Hall, there’s a multi-media exhibition, “Dreams of Freedom: The Threads That Hold Us Together,” on view through the end of March.

For information on Philadelphia’s Harriet Tubman 200th birthday celebration, go here.

Native American Heritage Month 2021

November is Native American Heritage Month. The contributions of Native Americans were erased by the false narrative that Christopher Columbus “discovered” land on which Indigenous People have lived for thousands of years. Public memorials to Columbus are sites of resistance. The movement to remove Christopher Columbus statues gained momentum in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. According to a Washington Post and MIT Data + Feminism Lab analysis, at least 40 monuments to Columbus have been removed since 2018, the majority of which were taken down in 2020 and 2021. Their data show that 130 memorials are still standing, including two in Philadelphia – the Columbus Monument at Penn’s Landing and the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza.

Indigenous People joined Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Native Americans and African Americans have a shared history of resistance. Indigenous People and African Americans also share ancestors. Notables of Afro-Indigenous ancestry include sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis, jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham and Jimi Hendrix.

This shared history and heritage came to mind when I read George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, asked, “Why can’t they put up another statue right here to honor Indigenous People?” In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I proposed a third way:

Rather than remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, recently suggested erecting an additional statue to honor Indigenous People? You let everybody celebrate their ethnicity,” he said. My response: Why not? Why not tell the full story of the ancestral land of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, on which the Columbus statue sits, and the layered histories of Marconi Plaza?

Native Americans and African Americans have a shared history of resistance to slavery and white supremacy. Indigenous People and African Americans are descendants of people whose land was stolen and people who were stolen from their homeland. Formerly enslaved people lived alongside Indigenous People in maroon communities in Louisiana and other Southern states. (Although some tribes enslaved Black people, I and other historians believe this form of slavery was much less brutal than American chattel slavery.)

READ MORE

Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2021

The recently released National Monument Audit produced by Monument Lab found that only Abraham Lincoln (193) and George Washington (171) have more public statues than Christopher Columbus (149).

At the height of the George Floyd protests, calls grew louder for Philadelphia to remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. So far, Mayor Jim Kenney has been stymied in his plan to remove the statue which has been encased in a plywood box since June 2020. On the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a judge issued an emergency order that the plywood covering must be removed immediately.

Mayor Kenney tweeted that statue supporters should do nothing until the City’s appeal is heard.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever White House proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day:

Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations.  On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations. 

Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to.  That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began.  For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.  Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.  We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.

Read more

Public Art Matters: Emancipation and Freedom Monument

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that enslaved people in states still in rebellion would be free within 100 days, i.e., January 1, 1863.

On September 22, 2021, the Emancipation and Freedom Monument was unveiled on Brown’s Island, a public park in Richmond, Virginia, capitol of the states in rebellion. During the Civil War, the island was the headquarters of the Confederate States Laboratory which manufactured ammunition for the Confederate war effort.

As International Underground Railroad Month winds down, I would like to share a video of the unveiling of the Emancipation and Freedom Monument.

Black History Matters

I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.

My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”

Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.

He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.

For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.

The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.

I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.

The struggle continues.

The Pedestal Project

Public art matters. Confederate monuments were installed to change the narrative about slavery and the Civil War, and to romanticize insurrectionist leaders of the “Lost Cause.”

In cities across the country, citizens have organized to take down symbols of white supremacy.

In some places an empty pedestal is all that remains.

Color of Change has launched The Pedestal Project, an Augmented Reality experience that replaces symbols of hate with symbols of equality:

Contentious statues have been torn down all across America, leaving behind empty pedestals in their wake. It’s time to place new symbols in their stead. The Pedestal Project is born of the vision to repurpose these ill-conceived pedestals by using technology to help people choose the statues that should go up on them. Statues of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and equality. So that beacons of hope and progress can stand where symbols of hate, oppression and inequality once stood. And that people everywhere can have an active voice in the movement for racial justice.

To find an empty pedestal near you, go here.

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 208-s-12th-street-overlay.jpg

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.