Journey to Freedom on the move, literally.

It’s quite fitting that the 9-foot bronze statue of Harriet Tubman, named Journey to Freedom is still on the move, as was Tubman for much of her life.

Since 2020, the statue has traveled around the country. Recently, it departed Brookgreen Gardens, in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and is on display through the end of May 2024 in Montgomery, Alabama. Journey to Freedom is booked through 2025.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage (Wikipedia).

 

The Beacon of Hope, Cambridge, Maryland

While sculptor Wesley Wofford’s Journey to Freedom continues its travels, his second statue of Tubman has been permanently installed in Cambridge, Maryland, a few miles from where she was born. The Beacon of Hope, erected in 2022, the bicentennial of Tubman’s birth, resides in front of the courthouse.

A Higher Power: The Call of a Freedom Fighter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sculptor Alvin Pettit and his design for a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is one of the cities of significance in Tubman’s remarkable story. It’s where she ended up in 1849 after fleeing slavery in Maryland and where she orchestrated subsequent trips to free others.

Because the traveling Journey to Freedom was so well received in Philadelphia, sculptor Wofford was targeted to create a permanent sculpture for the city. Yet, after locals demanded a transparent and inclusive process for the selection of an artist and design, an official call went out. Cherelle Parker, new mayor of Philadelphia had this to say about  selected sculptor, Alvin Pettit, and the statue:

“Harriet Tubman was a beacon of light at a dark time in our nation’s history, and she helped Black people find freedom through the Underground Railroad…Her recognition and this work of art in her honor, created by an artist of color, is overdue and welcomed. Hundreds of thousands will see this sculpture every year outside City Hall. As the first ever woman mayor of Philadelphia, and as a Black woman, I am thrilled that the first piece of public art to be approved under this administration will be this statue of a Black woman who fought for freedom here in Philadelphia — Harriet Tubman”(https://theurbannews.com/lifestyles/2022/a-new-beacon-of-hope/).

Shadow of a Face, Newark, New Jersey

Architect Nina Cooke John stands with the Harriet Tubman monument she designed (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

In June 2021, Newark, New Jersey’s Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced that a Harriet Tubman monument, designed by artist Nina Cooke John, would replace the statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed the previous summer. The park where this rather vast monument has been installed was renamed Harriet Tubman Square on Juneteenth, 2022.

Shadow of a Face illuminated in the night.

John’s sculpture of Harriet Tubman, Shadow of a Face, was unveiled on March 14, 2023. At the unveiling, Mayor Baraka shared:

“In a time when so many cities are choosing to topple statues that limit the scope of their people’s story, we have chosen to erect a monument that spurs us into our future story of exemplary strength and solidity. In a country where the overwhelming majority of monuments are testaments to white males, Newark has chosen to erect a monument to a Black woman who was barely five feet tall, but had the visage and power of a giant…We have created a focal point in the heart of our city that expresses our participation in an ongoing living history of a people who have grappled through many conflicts to steadily lead our nation in its progress toward racial equality. Harriet Tubman Square and its interactive centerpiece sculpture, Shadow of a Face, represent our past, present, and future”(https://www.archpaper.com/2023/03/nina-cooke-john-designed-harriet-tubman-monument-unveiled-in-newark/).

Breaking the Bronze Ceiling

Considering what Tubman confronted and accomplished in her lifetime, it’s not surprising that she has generated a solid number of monuments. What continues to surprise and dismay is that so many other worthy, notable women are blatantly missing in public spaces in cities around our country.

But again, there is momentum and a movement to break the bronze ceiling. Take a look at some of our previous posts on this issue:

Woman Writer, Educator and Activist Mary McLeod Bethune: Standing Tall in the Hall

Justice Ginsburg Day: Honoring the ‘Judicial Giant’

Breaking the Bronze Ceiling: One Inspiring Sculpture at a Time!

A Tipping Point: Open Spaces in Our Public Places 

Visibility Matters: A Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft

Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso: “A Personality with A Thousand Faces” Now in Bronze

Virginia Woolf: A Bench of Her Own, With Room for You

Additional Developments

Although there’s a significant dearth of statues depicting real women in our country, Tubman’s image and legacy have done much to address this gap and put a serious dent in the bronze ceiling.

There are said to be at least 9 full-figure sculptures of Tubman with others in the works, along with plaques, busts,  parks and museums named in her honor. Also, three commemorative coins are being released this year, each depicting a particular phase in Tubman’s life.

Speaking of currency, the plan to replace President Andrew Jackson’s image with that of Harriet Tubman’s on the twenty-dollar bill is still in the works. It’s an important endeavor that’s taking far too long. Annie Linskey with The Philadelphia Tribune explains:

“There has never been a Black person on the U.S. currency, nor has there been a woman on a bill in the modern era, despite repeated attempts to diversify the currency.”

According to her website, New Hampshire’s Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who has led this effort for years, renewed the push with the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2023. She has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress.

“If we can put a helicopter on Mars, we ought to be able to design a $20 bill in less than 20 years,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in an interview. “It’s all about commitment”(Linskey).

One of many possible designs for the Harriet Tubman paper currency.

The latest update informs that the Harriet Tubman $20 bill will be arriving in 2030. While it seems an outrageous amount of time to make this happen, thanks to Senator Shaheen and others, it’s still in the works.

Senator Shaheen shares:

“Images on U.S. paper currency are a reflection of our values and history, and more than that, these images send a message to Americans and world travelers about the story of America. Some of the most significant chapters in our collective history were shaped by women, which is why it’s egregious that a woman has never been featured on U.S. paper currency. That status quo has got to go…An abolitionist, a patriot and an American icon – Harriet Tubman is supremely deserving of this honor”(https://www.shaheen.senate.gov/news/press/shaheen-renews-push-to-put-harriet-tubman-on-20-bill).

Harrietts Bookshop

Jeannine Cook in front Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia.

Another spark of hope and beauty I discovered while reading articles about Tubman’s traveling sculpture is entrepreneur Jeannine Cook, owner of a bookshop in Philadelphia named for Tubman, Harriett’s Bookshop. (The name is spelled with a double T to honor both Harriets –Tubman and her mother from whom younger Harriet took her name, being born Araminta “Minty” Ross.)

In addition to this bookshop, Cook has recently opened another in nearby Collingswood, New Jersey named Ida’s Bookshop, after Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), a woman born enslaved in Mississippi who, emancipated after the Civil War, went on to become an investigative journalist, educator and staunch advocate for civil rights and women’s right.

Jeannine Cook’s other bookshop named for Ida B. Wells, in Collingswood, NJ.

Jeannine Cook’s bookstore, or two as it is now, “specialize in books by black and women authors. Her store is also a community space ‘for folks to come together, discuss ideas, and debate in a healthy way’”(Harden).

Upon hearing about the Tubman sculpture, The Journey to Freedom, Jeannine Cook had this important point to add:

“One thing I want to say while we are celebrating is that it’s really important that, yes, we have the statue and that’s a symbolic victory in many ways, because in Philadelphia there isn’t a statue to Harriet Tubman after all she did for the city, bringing people here to freedom.

“But at the same time, it’s more important, in my opinion, that we are able to hold up actual policies that we can say connects back to her legacy. As opposed to us just having symbolic victories, we should also be striving to have substantive victories as well”(Whittaker).

Let’s Keep This Journey Moving!

Finding ways to uphold policies that protect civil rights and women’s rights, as well as playing a role in devising new policies, is critical. The very least we can do is stay informed and vote!

Further, we can raise our voices, put our smarts and money where they can have the biggest impact, and some of us “nasty women” can run for office and hold positions in our communities, states, and country. A big thank you to those who do any and all of the above.

It’s time public art starts to convey complete and true stories. It’s time public art is inclusive of women, women of all backgrounds and experiences. It’s long overdue and although there’s much work to be done, the current momentum to break the bronze ceiling provides hope.

Harriet Tubman is a Nasty Woman Activist for whom we are abundantly and perpetually grateful.

© Maria Dintino 2022, 2024

Works Cited

City of Newark Communication. “Mayor Baraka announces Harriet Tu bman Monument design winner; Nina Cooke John’s design will replace Christopher Columbus monument.” 17 June 2021.  https://www.newarknj.gov/news/mayor-baraka-announces-harriet-tubman-monument-design-winner-nina-cooke-johns-design-will-replace-christopher-columbus-monument

Harden, Brandon T. “Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown: ‘A space of peace for people in a chaotic world.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC., 27 Feb, 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/business/small-business/harriets-bookshop-philadelphia-fishtown-jeannine-a-cook-owner-20200227.html

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. “NEW ‘BEACON OF HOPE’ HARRIET TUBMAN STATUE FINDS PERMANENT HOME IN HER HOMELAND.” https://harriettubmanbyway.org/new-beacon-of-hope-harriet-tubman-statue-finds-permanent-home-in-her-homeland/

Levy, Jordan. “After outcry over Harriet Tubman statue commission, Philadelphia course and will hold an open call.” BillyPenn, 30 Aug 2022. https://billypenn.com/2022/08/30/philadelphia-harriet-tubman-statue-commission-open-call-artists/

Linskey, Annie. “When will Harriet Tubman adorn the $20 bill?” The Philadelphia Tribune. 3 Jun 2021. https://www.phillytrib.com/news/when-will-harriet-tubman-adorn-the-20-bill/article_0fd66f6f-bab4-5bdc-a3a7-4339eccb538a.html?fbclid=IwAR28hvhkRi1X4IaPQndNlg9rU0jTgtdw85Wh5-ca_6tIrz2c8Jh60qSZeW0

Seward, Aaron. “Nina Cooke John–designed Harriet Tubman monument unveiled in Newark.” The Architect’s Newspaper, 14 Mar 2023. https://www.archpaper.com/2023/03/nina-cooke-john-designed-harriet-tubman-monument-unveiled-in-newark/

Shaheen, Jeanne. “Shaheen Renews Push to Put Harriet Tubman on $20 Bill.” 2 Mar 2023. https://www.shaheen.senate.gov/news/press/shaheen-renews-push-to-put-harriet-tubman-on-20-bill

Sharber, Cory. “Philadelphia Art Commission approves work to begin on Harriet Tubman statue.” NPR, 12 Jan 2024. https://whyy.org/articles/philadelphia-art-commission-approves-harriet-tubman-statue/

Snyder, Tashanta. “Harriet Tubman monument replacing Christopher Columbus statue in Newark reignites racial tug of war around city’s history.” Ark Republic, 14 Oct 2022. https://www.arkrepublic.com/2022/10/14/racial-tug-over-the-harriet-tubman-monument-replacing-christopher-columbus-statue/

Whittaker, Celeste E. “Harriet Tubman traveling sculpture unveiled at Philadelphia’s City Hall.” Cherry Hill Courier-Post, 12 Jan 2022. https://www.courierpostonline.com/story/life/2022/01/11/harriet-tubman-sculpture-unveiled-philadelphia-cape-may/9170050002/