Harriet Tubman statue comes to Sylva

MONUMENTAL: “Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom,” by sculptor Wesley Wofford of Cashiers, comes to Sylva in September. Photo by Augie LaTorre

Western North Carolina is grappling with a controversial  part of its history: monuments erected in commemoration of Confederate figures. In May, after months of debate and consideration by a specially appointed task force, Asheville began removing the Vance Monument, an obelisk honoring the late Confederate military officer and former Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance.

And in Sylva, the town Board of Commissioners has been disputing with the Jackson County Board of Commissioners since 2020 over the county’s refusal to remove a statue colloquially referred to as “Sylva Sam.” The figure, located on county-owned land in downtown Sylva, depicts an unnamed Confederate soldier with the Confederate flag and honors “Our Heroes of the Confederacy.”

Thus far, the focus has been on removing existing monuments. That will change in Sylva in September with the installation of a traveling monument depicting Harriet Tubman and an enslaved girl in Bridge Park.

“Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom,” a 9-foot-tall, 2,400-pound work by Cashiers-based figurative sculptor Wesley Wofford, depicts the abolitionist braced forward into the wind, protectively leading the child. The two stand atop a base depicting Delaware Bay Peninsula, which Tubman traversed on the Underground Railroad.

Bringing Tubman to Western North Carolina “felt like a no-brainer to us,” says Marsha Lee Baker, chair of the community coordination committee of the Jackson County NAACP branch, which is sponsoring the installation from Monday, Sept. 20, to Monday, Dec. 20. “All of us were familiar with the importance of her history and what she did for so many people.”

Jackson’s NAACP applied for and received a Racial Equity Community Grant of $24,558 from the Dogwood Health Trust to bring “The Journey to Freedom” to Sylva. The town, where the group holds many of its meetings, granted permission for the installation in Bridge Park and will pay $60 a month for insurance.

“The town of Sylva is thrilled to have this work of art coming to our community,” says Town Manager Paige Dowling. “This a wonderful opportunity to showcase history and art downtown. This is the first time a sculpture has been installed at Bridge Park. This makes it even more exciting.”

The dedication ceremony for “The Journey to Freedom” takes place Sunday, Sept. 26. President of the Jackson County NAACP Dana Murray Patterson will read “Harriet Tubman,” a poem by Margaret Walker. Vincent Willis, a professor of social sciences at the University of Alabama, will give a keynote about the importance of children in the journey to freedom. The dedication will also include performances by the choir of the Liberty Baptist Church of Sylva and Blue Jazz, a Franklin-based jazz trio.

The artistic process

Wofford, who co-owns Wofford Sculpture Studio with his wife, studio director Odyssey Wofford, creates works on commission for garden pieces and public installations. The original copy of “The Journey to Freedom” was commissioned by a private client and is permanently installed in Dallas.

In designing the piece, Wesley Wofford sought dance instructor Jada Bryson of Franklin, whom he had seen perform, to model Tubman. Bryson’s 8-year-old student, Aspen Applewhite, modeled the girl.

“It is an honor to be the body of such a fierce, inspirational woman,” Bryson tells Xpress. “It’s not my face, but it’s my hands, my feet, my body and my spirit embodying Harriet.”

Wofford held several modeling sessions and a wardrobe fitting; in the final session, he photographed the models with two industrial fans blowing on them to create the billowing movement captured in Tubman’s and the child’s dresses. The studio refrained from posting about the piece on social media during Wofford’s 18 months of labor, as per a nondisclosure agreement with his client. But once “The Journey to Freedom” arrived in Texas in August 2020, the Woffords had the greenlight to release photographs of the process and the finished work.

Those images made a splash online: Pictures that Odyssey Wofford posted on the studio’s Facebook page in September 2019 have been shared over 18,000 times. “The outpouring was tremendous,” Wesley Wofford recalls. “It kind of exploded.”

He says the statue’s debut was “serendipitous” in its alignment with the country’s growing racial justice movement and “the ongoing conversation that we’re having in our social spaces about Confederate monuments and what do those mean, coupled with [Colin] Kaepernik, Black Lives Matter and George Floyd.” And other recent cultural moments have honored Tubman specifically. In 2019, Focus Features released the biopic “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Ervio. Since 2016, the Treasury Department has been in the process of replacing President Andrew Jackson with Tubman on the $20 bill.

The enthusiastic response to the photos prompted many people to ask Wofford where to see the statue in person. That led to an offer from another anonymous client to foot the bill for recasting the work.

In a tour organized by Odyssey Wofford, “The Journey to Freedom” has been installed in Montgomery, Ala.; Newburgh, N.Y.; Cape May, N.J.; Cambridge, Md.; and other locations. Sylva will be the closest to the Woffords’ home and studio that it has been displayed. “I hope being in Sylva, it will elicit some dialogues that maybe are uncomfortable and important to have,” Wesley Wofford says.

Adds Bryson, “I was shocked when the statue went viral on the internet because, being a woman of color, I am used to being overlooked and undervalued. I think it resonates with people because of the emotion and intention that Wesley puts into his art.”

Leadership lesson

One such conversation could be why Black female historical figures are not more ubiquitous as public monuments. Several sculptures of abolitionist Sojourner Truth exist around the country; New York City plans to debut a statue of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, in the near future. But a sculpture of Nina Simone, installed in the singer’s birthplace of Tryon, seems to be the only piece permanently honoring an African American woman in WNC.

“The commemoration of Harriet Tubman is timely and apropos,” wrote David Mathew Walton, director of Western Carolina University’s Global Black Studies Program, in a statement to Xpress. “At a time when Black women are playing such a crucial role in American electoral politics, Tubman is the perfect symbol and metaphor.”

Walton continued, “Any recognition of Tubman forces one to confront the falsities of the ‘content slave’ narrative, appreciate the simple truths of American racialization and concede shortcomings of American exceptionalism.”

The sculpture also proved an educational opportunity for the artist. “Doing someone as important as Harriet Tubman, it has to be authentic,” Wofford explains. “My role as an artist needs to fade into the background, and it just needs to be a megaphone for her messaging, and in order to do that, I need to learn about her.”

Although Wofford recalls learning about the Underground Railroad in school, he says, “we didn’t really learn a lot of extensive history of [Tubman]. She’s that runaway slave that helped other slaves get away — that’s kind of all I had.” Therefore, “before even touching any clay,” Wofford says he researched primary sources about Tubman, like journal entries kept by Underground Railroad hosts.

The Jackson County branch of the NAACP recognizes that “The Journey to Freedom” shows a white male’s depiction of two Black females. Baker, who is also white, says the branch recognizes the importance of supporting and celebrating black artists.

“Taking this current opportunity to install this sculpture is an immediate way we could act,” she says.

Hidden figures

The number of women depicted by public outdoor statues can be difficult to pin down. Women often personify concepts like “freedom” or “beauty” in sculpture, and girls or fictional characters may or may not be counted. A “Herstory Map” from the TV channel Lifetime places the number at fewer than 200 out of 5,575 sculptures of historical figures identified by the Smithsonian; a separate Smithsonian count of outdoor sculptures cited by the Washington Post lists fewer than 400.

Yet Wofford believes public figurative art is undergoing a renaissance, which has the potential for “course-correcting that lack of cultural diversity,” he says. Statues like “The Journey to Freedom,” he continues, demonstrate how public spaces can be used for art and the type of art that should be in them.

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