By Kaylee Cook
Sylva was never a stop on the Underground Railroad, but Harriet Tubman is coming to town.
The “Journey to Freedom - Harriet Tubman” statue will next week make Sylva’s Bridge Park its temporary home. The 9-foot, 2,400-pound bronze sculpture, the creation of Cashiers resident and Academy and Emmy award winner Wesley Wofford, has been making its way across the country.
The arrival and installation of the statue could happen as soon as Monday morning, with the Jackson County NAACP hosting an event from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, to celebrate the sculpture’s arrival in Sylva.
The theme for the event is “Journey to Freedom – Together.”
Activities include a keynote speech by University of Alabama scholar Vincent Willis, music from trio Blue Jazz, dramatic performances, readings and more.
The sculpture and public celebration provide an opportunity to “facilitate cultural understanding, create space for dialogue and share traditions that represent a diverse community,” said Jackson County NAACP President Dana Patterson.
The sculpture features Tubman as she fights against the wind to lead a slave girl on the Underground Railroad to freedom. Tubman’s clothing is blown backward to symbolize her struggle, while the child’s foot hangs off the back of the pedestal symbolizing the dangers faced on the missions to freedom.
“Harriet Tubman is personally one of my heroes, she’s one of the people that I admire for her story, her perseverance and what she represents, the strength and tenacity of African American people in general,” Patterson said, “And for this sculpture, there’s not a lot of places in Sylva that currently tell the story of African Americans and what their life experiences were living in this area of Western North Carolina. I think that it shows a little bit of a representation of the culture of African American people and sheds a light on the story and the lived experiences of some of those people, so I think it’s very, very important.”
The town is in charge of the statue installation.
“It’s going to sit on the concrete pad in front of the Bridge Park Pavilion,” Sylva Director of Public Works Jake Scott said. “It will come in on a flatbed truck, and I will lift it with a forklift and put it gently in its place. There’s also going to be a banner behind it.”
Scott and his crew will install uplighting to illuminate the statue at night, he said.
This event is one of many the Jackson branch of the NAACP has planned to bring awareness and representation of diverse identities to Jackson County.
“We just have so many opportunities to get involved,” Patterson said. “I just want the people of Sylva to know that there’s an opportunity for you too. If you would like to come and get involved with us we would welcome you, welcome your heart and welcome your hands to be a part of all the things we’re trying to do, to be the change that we want to see in the community where we live. So everyone’s invited to join the NAACP of Jackson County.”
“Our mountain counties and towns need and deserve what they do not often receive: public displays of art that open us up to ourselves and each other, of art that inspires opportunity and vision to see who we are and can be,” said Marsha Lee Baker, chair of the Journey to Freedom Planning Committee. “Serving alongside many people to bring this sculpture to Sylva gave me opportunities to collaborate with a variety of people and organizations, many I had never met, with lots of listening and learning required. Soon, I will sit with this sculpture and do the same.”
The nationally touring sculpture is coming to Sylva with the support of the Town of Sylva, the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, Calliope Stage, Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, Dogwood Health Trust, Jackson County Arts Council, Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, Jackson County Friends of the Library, Jackson County NAACP Branch 54AB, the Main Street Sylva Association, Reconcile Sylva, Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center, Mountain Heritage Center and Department of Intercultural Affairs.
For more information on the Jackson County branch of the NAACP visit jacksonncnaacp.org.