Tubman statue arrives as Confederate soldier gets new plaques
Chiseled by an Emmy- and Academy Award-winning artist, a 2,400-pound bronze piece depicting Harriet Tubman leading a young girl out of slavery is now installed at Bridge Park in Sylva.
“It’s pretty awesome, pretty symbolic, historical and beautiful,” said Marsha Lee Baker, chair of the Jackson County NAACP’s Community Coordination Committee. “It’s just such a powerful sculpture for so many of us, to stand in front of it.”
The statue arrived in the rain on Sunday, Sept. 19, with branch members, a public works crew from the Town of Sylva, and the sculptor himself, Wesley Wofford, together with his wife Odyssey, helping to unload and install it. Originally from Georgia, Wofford now resides in Cashiers, having moved to Western North Carolina in 2002 following a career at the forefront of the makeup effects industry in Hollywood, California.
“It’s in my backyard. I love that,” Wofford told The Smoky Mountain News in October 2020, when the statue’s arrival was first scheduled. “And for Sylva to be a part of that national dialogue is important.”
Titled “Harriet Tubman: Journey to Freedom,” the piece was originally commissioned for a private building in Dallas, Texas, with Franklin native Jada Bryson modeling Tubman as Wofford worked. When photos of the sculpture went viral, Wofford made a copy so that more people could experience the piece. It’s spent the last year touring the country, and its stop in Sylva will extend through Dec. 20 thanks to fundraising and organizational efforts from the NAACP.
Funding for the statue’s stay in Sylva came from the Dogwood Health Trust, with the Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center acting as the 501(c)3 agency to handle the money — the Jackson NAACP is a 501(c)4, so not directly eligible under the grant terms. The town provided the sculpture’s location, installation and security, with marketing and publicity support from the town, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
A dedication for the statue held under sunny skies Sunday, Sept. 26, drew more than 350 people to Bridge Park, with the NAACP quickly running through the 200 programs it had ordered for the event. The Liberty Baptist Church provided music, ministry and fellowship for the event.
The NAACP hopes to use Tubman’s story as a launching pad to spotlight local African American history and heroes. Through a partnership with Western Carolina University, a self-guided African American Historical Tour of five key sites in Western North Carolina will soon be available, extending through December 2023. WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center completed extensive research for the tour in consultation with the WCU Department of Intercultural Affairs and branch elders at the Jackson NAACP. The Bardo Arts Center developed QR technology for the tour and will collaborate with the Jackson NAACP on learning activities for students in the three-county area of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. In addition to aiding with research efforts, Intercultural Affairs has engaged college students and student organizations in related service learning.
The tour is available through the app STQRY. Information about how to access it will be available at the statue’s installation at Bridge Park.
The arrival of Wofford’s Harriet Tubman statue coincided with another significant change in downtown Sylva — the new plaques Jackson County commissioners approved for the Confederate soldier statue on the courthouse steps were installed two
days after Wofford’s sculpture.
The Confederate statue, which has stood there since its initial dedication in 1915, became a local flashpoint in the midst of the nationwide racial reckoning that unfolded following the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Debate about what to do with the statue spurred a pair of competing demonstrations in July 2020, with a march downtown demanding that the county to remove it as a symbol of racism while a rally in the library parking lot urged respect for the statue as a memorial to the fallen.
In a 3-2 vote last summer, the Sylva Board of Commissioners asked the county to relocate the statue, but commissioners decided 4-1 to keep it in place — but with changes to the explicitly pro-Confederate messaging on the pedestal. In May, commissioners approved $14,000 to enact those changes, spurring another 3-2 vote from the town opposing that decision.
Previously, the pedestal referred to “our heroes of the Confederacy” and displayed a Confederate flag.
The new plaque covers up those engravings and reads, “Jackson County N.C. Civil War Memorial. This monument was erected by citizens of Jackson County in memory of those who died during the American Civil War. Originally dedicated on September 18, 1915. Rededicated on May 11, 1996, to honor Jackson County veterans of all wars.”
The nation’s unofficial motto, “E Pluribus Unum” covers up the words, “Our heroes of the Confederacy.”
Who was Harriet Tubman?
Born into slavery in March 1822 under the name Araminta Ross, Harriet Tubman married a free man named John Tubman and made the journey north in 1849, settling in Philadelphia and changing her name to Harriett.
Shortly thereafter, she returned to Maryland to rescue her family and subsequently made at least 13 missions south to liberate about 70 enslaved people, using the network of people and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to aid her efforts. Her work earned her the code name “Moses” in reference to the Biblical figure who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” Tubman said at an 1896 women’s suffrage convention.
Tubman worked for the Union Army during the Civil War, first as a nurse and then as a scout and spy, liberating more than 700 slaves when she guided the Combahee River Raid. That mission made her the first woman in the Civil War to lead an armed expedition. After the war she became an advocate for women’s voting rights and for impoverished former slaves and elderly people in her community of Auburn, New York.
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Regardless of the political correctness behind the changes, the Confederate memorial is what it always was. Only to the loony left, and others that accept the current propaganda on the war between the states, is it a symbol racism.
The NAACP is still living in 1864.