harriet tubman in place bridge park


By Dave Russell


Just like the real Harriet Tubman during her work with the Underground Railroad, her likeness in Sylva’s Bridge Park has to keep on moving.

Next stop: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She’s set to leave Friday, Jan. 7.

Cashiers resident Wesley Wofford, an Academy and Emmy Award-winning sculptor, created the 9 ft., 2,400 lb. bronze statue.

The sculpture, titled “Journey to Freedom,” 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.

The sculpture arrived on Sept. 20, and an estimated crowd of over 200 gathered on Sept. 26 to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the revolutionary woman.

To bid her farewell, the Jackson County NAACP hosts a free candlelight tribute for the “Journey to Freedom” sculpture from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bridge Park. The ceremony will include silence and thoughts shared by participants. Candles will be provided, and masks are requested.

The sculpture was set to leave Sylva on Dec. 20, but was extended due to travel changes before departing for Philadelphia.

The installation has had an impact in Jackson County, said Jackson County NAACP spokeswoman Marti Newbold.

“The significance of public art is that it can bring people together without words,” she said. “People can come and witness a beautiful piece of art, and also, in the case of ‘Journey to Freedom,’ learn more about historical person who they just knew vaguely. They can witness a piece of history that is still relevant today in terms of the ongoing journey to freedom for all people.

“People traveled from outside Jackson County to see it and when they are there, they are experiencing Jackson County in a different way, because it is significant that Jackson County decided to support an African-American icon in downtown’s Bridge Park.”


Meaningful Experience

“Art is an expression of the time it was produced coupled with time we find ourselves in,” Sylva town board member Greg McPherson said. “‘Journey to Freedom’ has been a meaningful experience for everyone who saw it. We are looking for ways to quantify visitorship, but anecdotally from staff and the police it has been well attended indeed.”

McPherson, an art professor at Western Carolina University, would love to see more touring art or have a permanent piece for downtown, he said.

The sculpture was a topic of conversation at the Chamber of Commerce.

“We have had visitors, as well as locals, that have come by and inquired about the sculpture,” Director Julie Donaldson said. 

The Chamber designed a flier to give to visitors.

“We’ve particularly enjoyed seeing some school groups come by,” Donaldson said. “We’ve also been able to share the info with guests who are passing through the area and had no idea that sculpture is here and they end up spending more time in Sylva. It has been a pleasure and privilege to have the Harriet Tubman sculpture here for the past four months. We are grateful to Wesley Wofford for sharing her with us.”

The sculpture’s arrival opened the door for a teaching opportunity as well.

Tyler Faetz, chair of the Education Committee of the Jackson County NAACP said the committee created a Journey to Freedom learning plan aligned to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study that can be used by educators at the K-12 level.

“The plan consists of a discussion guide, lesson plans and educational activities that can be implemented at all grade levels and corresponds to both the sculpture installation and any study of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” he said.

The plan was offered to school leaders in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, he said.

According to the Tubman Museum of African American Art, History and Culture in Macon, Georgia, Harriett Tubman was born Araminta Ross in Dorchester, Maryland in 1822. Born into slavery, Tubman exhibited revolutionary qualities early on in her life. At the age of 12 or 13, she was struck in the head by a two-pound iron weight while attempting to help another slave avoid punishment.

In 1844, at the age of 25, she married freeman John Tubman. Five years later, Harriett Tubman made her escape to Philadelphia and become an active figure in the abolitionist movement.

Her first expedition on the Underground Railroad occurred in 1851, one year after the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made it illegal to aid escaping slaves and allowed slave owners to reclaim their “property,” even in states where slavery was illegal. Tubman would go on to make 13 trips back to Maryland, lead 70 slaves to freedom and instructing as many as 60 others on how to escape to the north from 1851 through the end of the Civil War. She was dedicated to the fight for equality up until her death in 1913.