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Historic Harriet Tubman Sculpture on Display along the Grand Strand

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath

Take advantage of this rare opportunity to see the sculpture called Bring Harriet Home – Journey to Freedom.  Billed as a “Monumental Event,” through October 31st in Georgetown and at Brookgreen Gardens for the two months after that, you’ll be able to see this incredible depiction of one of our country’s greatest historical figures on Front Street in Georgetown’s Joseph Rainey Park.  The location is named for the town native who became the first African American congressman. A historical marker honoring Rainey can be found nearby on Prince Street, outside of his former home.

But the sculpture is really two depictions in one.  What initially appears to be Harriet Tubman guiding a small child to freedom is actually Harriet seen twice as both an adult and a child. 

The forehead of her younger self bears the scar from a two-pound weight that hit her in the head when she was trying to protect another person at whom the weight had been thrown.  The incident caused a traumatic brain injury resulting in the epilepsy and the hypersomnia (the tendency to fall asleep excessively throughout the day) that she had to live with throughout her life. 

But that didn’t stop her from freeing herself from the bonds of slavery, helping hundreds of others to do the same, serving the US military during the Civil War, and continuing to bring positive change as an activist until she was in her late eighties before passing away on March 10th, 1913, now known as Harriet Tubman Day.  The US Congress enacted the holiday in her honor in 1990. 

North Carolina-based artist, Wesley Wofford, accepted the private commission to create a nine-foot-high sculpture that would represent Harriet Tubman’s legacy.  When the piece was finished in 2019, its image was shared on social media and was warmly embraced by millions.  That outpouring was the inspiration for this traveling exhibition.  An artist’s print was cast, and it has been on display since February 2020. 

While gaining notoriety in the art world, Wofford had previously found acclaim in the fields of television and film and is both an Emmy and Academy Award recipient.  He has been involved in the art department, make-up, or prosthetics of thirty movies up until 2019, including A Beautiful Mind, American Hustle, and five of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies. 

Wofford’s art today is described in his biography as “emphasizing the human presence and is characterized by a dynamic use of form and texture. Wesley’s monuments provoke passionate responses, and he is known for his intimate, emotionally charged portraits.” It is appropriate that someone who excelled in creating faces for movie stars’ characters should take on the sculpture of one of our nation’s action heroes. 

In February 2021, Tubman was inducted into the US Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.  During the Civil War, she was one of the Union’s most brilliant spies.  The executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, Christopher Costa, told the Washington Post in an interview that “she was not only involved with spying and scouting, she almost operated like a Special Operations specialist. It is an extraordinary story. She was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York.”

In his report to the Secretary of War back during that time, Edwin Stanton, regarding a raid on the Confederate controlled Combahee River in South Carolina,  a Union general said that  “This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, Black or White, led the raid, and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted.”  And this isn’t even what she is famous for.

Harriet Tubman is synonymous with the Underground Railroad.  It was the network of safehouses and other refuges that allowed enslaved Africans to escape their bonds and find freedom in free states and Canada. 

Of her legacy she would say later that, “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.”  After achieving her own freedom in 1849 from a plantation in Maryland, she returned to the South repeatedly to help many to do the same.  A $40,000 bounty was posted for her capture, but she was never caught.

Historians can document that she returned 13 times, saving 70 people.  Although it is widely believed that she came back 19 times, assisting at least 300 men, women, and children. There was one particular person whom she helped a great deal that makes having her sculpture on display in Georgetown so poignant.  He was her great-nephew, James Bowley.  While there is no indication that Harriet Tubman herself ever visited Georgetown, her impact there was felt through her descendant and Georgetown resident, Bowley.

His family was the first that she ever rescued.  She conspired with James’ father, John, who was a free Black man married to Harriet’s enslaved niece, Kessiah, who was more like a sister to her.  He worked as a blacksmith, shipbuilder and master seaman who co-owned an unfinished schooner with his brothers that they would complete and use to establish a shipping business. 

Harriet and her brother-in-law met secretly in Baltimore to hatch a daring, but successful, scheme to rescue Kessiah and their children before they were sold at auction in December of 1850. That was about a year after Harriet had liberated herself and fled to Philadelphia.  Freedom was bittersweet for her.  She missed her family who were still in bondage.  That loneliness was the catalyst for her to risk her life and freedom to free others, starting with her own family.

The crucial element of the plan has been lost to history, but the overall logistics of the rescue scheme played out like this.  Kessiah was taken to auction where bids were made.  One participant eventually outbid everyone else.  We don’t know how he did it without being identified, but the winning bid was given by John Bowley, her husband.  Then, when normally Kessiah would have been taken to an area to await collection by the winning bidder, she and the children were instead spirited away to a safehouse before anyone from the auction realized what had happened.  Soon afterwards they secretly went by boat to Baltimore where they were reunited with Harriet, and eventually made their way to Philadelphia. 

While the rest of the family continued on to Canada, Harriet’s great-nephew, James A. Bowley, who was about eight years old at the time, remained in Philadelphia with her to receive an education financed by his great aunt.  He eventually joined his family in Canada and returned with them to the US in later years. As an adult, he married and settled in Georgetown.  According to the local newspaper there, “Bowley moved to Georgetown in 1867 and soon after served as a state representative, lawyer, commissioner of Georgetown County schools, publisher, teacher, probate judge and a University of South Carolina trustee. He also received fundraising help from Tubman equivalent to $10,000 in today’s currency. His former King Street home is denoted by a historical marker.”

There was a special guest on hand when that marker was unveiled in 2019, who was also at the unveiling of the Harriett Tubman sculpture.  That person was Harriet Tubman’s three times great niece, Tina Wyatt.  She came to Myrtle Beach a few days after the latter ceremony to speak at the Historic Myrtle Beach Colored School Museum. 

She shared that many people ask her if she has any personal anecdotes from Harriet Tubman’s life that most people wouldn’t know from books or movies about her.  They are usually surprised when Tina tells them no.  She explained that she grew up a few hours from her grandmother who lived in Auburn, New York, where Harriet lived, worked for most of her life after the Civil War, and where she is buried now. 

As a child, Tina would visit her grandmother on a fairly regular basis with her family.  Once all of the normal family conversations took place catching everyone up on the goings on in each other's lives, the topic would turn to Harriet Tubman.  While Tina was aware that she was related to her, her famous ancestor was always treated like a historical figure as opposed to a great, great, great aunt.  They would go to the buildings that are still there in Auburn that were significant to her life and work.  Then they would then visit her grave in the same cemetery where Tina’s grandmother is now buried.

Before her death in her later years, Tina’s grandmother shifted the narrative.  She began to tell stories of her personal relationship with Harriet.  Prior to that time, Tina, as a child, secretly questioned  why such importance was placed on a deceased person whom they didn’t even know.  It wasn’t until she was an adult that Tina found out that her grandmother was born in Harriet Tubman’s house and that this incredible figure from our history was one of her caretakers.  Tina’s grandmother knew Harriet Tubman.

Tina explained that sometimes in African American families the stories of their ancestors are not talked about because their experiences had been so painful.  Emphasis was placed on the present and future and how to live a life of substance and accomplishment despite what their predecessors endured.  Now more families want to know all of their family history no matter where the story takes them.  A new light is shown on the triumphs over tragedy as opposed to just the tragedies themselves. In Tina’s family, being able to share Harriet Tubman’s story with the help of the traveling display of Journey to Freedom is helping to do just that. 

Kathryn Hedgepath

Myrtle Beach native, Kathryn Hedgepath, loves to share her hometown’s history with visitors and newcomers to the Grand Strand.  She is the creator and narrator of the Myrtle Beach History Trolley and Step-On Tours, and the author of the book, Myrtle Beach Movies, that tells the stories behind the motion pictures that were made or premiered in Myrtle Beach.  She has traveled in 40 countries on 6 continents and uses her experience to convey our local history through a world lens. Kathryn returned home from NYC in 2002 to marry her beloved husband, Jenks, after a career in television and publishing (and even worked in Space Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters in DC for a semester before starting grad school at Georgetown University).  Her first career job was as Personal Assistant to television icon and wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. Her dad, Myrtle Beach’s first veterinarian, arranged the job interview when Jim Fowler came to Myrtle Beach for a speaking appearance at a veterinary conference in 1991.