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October 30, 2023

Design selected for Philly's permanent Harriet Tubman statue

Artist Alvin Pettit, who was chosen to create the piece through a public survey, is projected to complete the installation at City Hall by 2025

Arts & Culture Statue
harriet tubman alvin pettit design philadelphia Alvin Pettit Studio/CITY OF PHILADELPHIA OFFICE OF ARTS, CULTURE AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

Artist Alvin Pettit has been chosen to create Philly's permanent Harriet Tubman statue outside City Hall. The design, pictured above, is titled 'A Higher Power: The Call of a Freedom Fighter.'

A project to create a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman in Philadelphia moves forward as the city has selected an artist and design.

Artist Alvin Pettit has been chosen by the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to create the statue paying homage to Tubman, the famous abolitionist and emancipator who escaped slavery when she arrived in the free city of Philadelphia in 1849. The sculpture, which will be located outside City Hall, will be the first statue of a Black female historical figure in Philly’s public art collection.

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In September, the OACCE opened an input survey for the public to choose between potential sculpture designs by artists Pettit, Vinnie Bagwell, Tanda Francis, Richard Blake and Basil Watson. (Blake then removed himself from the competition.) The survey, which allowed voters to score the designs in seven categories, including likeness, essence and emotional qualities, received nearly 3,000 responses. Pettit's proposal scored the highest in all categories.

His design, titled “A Higher Power: The Call of a Freedom Fighter," draws inspiration from Tubman's heroics as a Civil War soldier and from Arnold Friberg’s 1975 painting “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” which depicts George Washington praying in the woods during the Revolutionary War.

"I purposefully refrained from depicting her as being pursued, as many other monuments have," Pettit wrote about his design on Instagram. "Instead, I chose to highlight a moment in history when tyranny was on the run from her."

To guide the process of selecting an artist and design, the African American Historic Statue Advisory Committee was formed. It consists of public arts professionals, historians, educators, community representatives, Tubman's family members and OACCE staff. The survey results were considered among other evaluation criteria in selecting the winning design.

“In the course of this competition, we witnessed remarkable talent from our semi-finalist artists,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a release. “Each depicted a unique vision and told a distinct story about Harriet Tubman through their proposals. Yet, I was struck by Alvin Pettit’s design and how it depicts Harriet Tubman’s likeness, evokes her power, and reminds us of her leadership.”

Pettit is a Baltimore-native artist who has spent three decades sculpting and painting. His recent work includes a two-block-long Black Lives Matter mural and a bronze sculpture of activist Mary McLeod Bethune, both located in Jersey City, where Pettit serves on the executive board of the city's arts council.

Philly's new statue was announced after a sculpture of Tubman temporarily graced Philadelphia last year and gained popularity with the public. Wesley Wofford's "Harriet Tubman: A Journey to Freedom" stood outside City Hall from January through March in commemoration of Tubman's 200th birthday. 

The city then decided to permanently install a Tubman statue, which was also going to be designed by Wofford. After public backlash from local artists — who protested the choice of Wofford, a white artist, to depict a Black historical figure — the city instead put out a public call for design submissions. 

With Pettit's design selected, the artist is expected to begin installing the statue next summer. It is expected to be completely completed by early 2025, according to current city projections.

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