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

The statue arrived in Philadelphia January 11 and will remain in the City Hall area through March, gracing the city during both Black History and Women’s History months.

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.

This celebration of Harriet Tubman is also timely since it is believed that this March is the bicentennial of her birth, her 200th birthday. (Due to a lack of accurate records for those born enslaved, this is uncertain.)

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).

This traveling statue of Tubman by sculptor Wesley Wofford has been in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Alabama and North Carolina and will be making its way back to New York once leaving Pennsylvania at the end of March.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney remarked:

“Telling these stories through public art is vital for learning and reflection, connecting with our communities, and understanding our histories” (Whittaker).

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

While reading articles about Harriet Tubman’s “The Journey to Freedom” sculpture, I stumbled upon a couple of discoveries that stand out.

The first is the discovery that there are numerous statues of Harriet Tubman in existence! 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 to put a serious dent in the bronze ceiling.

There are said to be at least 9 full-figure sculptures of Tubman, along with other memorials, such as plaques and busts. There are also parks and museums named in her honor.

Nina Cooke John’s monument to Harriet Tubman “Shadow of a Face” to be installed in summer 2022.

And here’s a big story too: back in June 2021, Newark, New Jersey’s Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced that a Harriet Tubman monument, designed by artist Nina Cooke John, will replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed the previous summer. The park where this rather vast monument will be installed will be renamed Tubman Square.

In the announcement, Mayor Baraka said:

“Nearly one year after our nation’s racial reckoning and just in time for this year’s celebration of Juneteenth, we are proud to announce the design selected for our new Harriet Tubman monument. It is only fitting that we memorialize Tubman’s heroic efforts leading enslaved Africans to freedom via the Underground Railroad at this time of year when we celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Ms. John’s work of public art will be a symbol of hope and optimism for generations to come, not only for our Newark community, but also for the entire country”(City of Newark).

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 around our country.

But again, there is momentum. 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

Jeannine Cook in front Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia.

Another spark of hope and beauty I discovered when 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).

Finding ways to uphold policies that protect civil rights and women’s rights, as well as to play 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. And thank you to those who do any and all of the above.

Let’s also recognize and amplify the wave that is sweeping representation in public spaces: the steady addition of statues of women across our country!

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

© Maria Dintino 2022

Works Cited

City of Newark Communication. “Mayor Baraka announces Harriet Tubman 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

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/