After a long journey, Harriet Tubman sculpture unveiled in historic Georgetown

3 Aug

After a long journey, Harriet Tubman sculpture unveiled in historic Georgetown

“Awe inspiring,” “emotional,” “joyous,” “gorgeous” and “exciting” were some of the words people used to describe a Harriet Tubman sculpture that has arrived on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, its new home for the next five months.

The sculpture, dubbed “Bringing Harriet Home: Journey to Freedom” for its stay in Georgetown County, depicts a strong-willed Harriet Tubman leading a young, frightened, enslaved boy to freedom. It has been delivered to Joseph Rainey Park in Georgetown, where it will remain until the end of October when it goes to Brookgreen Gardens for another two months. The sculpture was unveiled on Saturday, Aug. 5, during a ceremony that drew a crowd of about 400 people to the park.

This sculpture, depicting Harriet Tubman leading a young enslaved boy to freedom, will be at Joseph Rainey Park in Georgetown through Oct. 31. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

On Tuesday, Aug. 1, the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce led a team who took the sculpture on a tour of the Hammock Coast, making several stops throughout Georgetown County before arriving in Georgetown. Those stops were: Southern Georgetown Library in the Sampit community, Andrews Park, Plantersville Cultural Center, and Waccamaw Neck Branch Library in the Litchfield community of Pawleys Island.

“We are delighted to finally have her here,” said Marilyn Hemingway, president/CEO of the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce. “We want to say thank you to the community for coming out to see Harriet arrive, and we invite everyone to come to see her in Georgetown.”

The planning committee for the visiting sculpture includes representatives from South Carolina’s Hammock CoastGullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce, the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, the City of GeorgetownBrookgreen GardensGeorgetown County, the Georgetown Business Association, the Georgetown County School District, the Georgetown County Museum, the Georgetown County Library, and the Pawleys Island Litchfield Business Association.

The unveiling ceremony featured special guests, including city, county and state leaders; Wesley Wofford, the sculptor; Ernestine Tina Martin Wyatt, the great-great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman; Kate Clifford Lawson, a preeminent Tubman biographer; along with musical performances and readings. 

The Harriet Tubman sculpture is unveiled on Saturday, Aug. 5, at Joseph Rainey Park. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Georgetown Mayor Carol Jayroe said during the unveiling ceremony that the city is thrilled to host the sculpture and share Harriet Tubman’s legacy.

“The legacy of Harriet Tubman representes the past, the present and the future, and it is a legacy that emulates bravery, compassion and heroism,” she said. “It is a legacy that teaches us that we must learn from history the wrongs of enslavement and we must strive to serve as a civil society where all people are created equal.”

Georgetown County Councilwoman Lillie Jean Johnson said this was a great day in Georgetown.

“Harriet Tubman represents what is good, what is loving and what is pleasing because she was a selfless person,” Johnson said. “As Americans, lovers of freedom, let’s use her as an example to show what it is to love, to share, and care for others.”

Sculptor Wesley Wofford said he created the Journey to Freedom piece because he is inspired by Harriet Tubman’s legacy. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

State Rep. Carl Anderson said that this is one of the most momentous occasions he has attended all summer.

“Out of Harriet Tubman’s journey, out of all the history we could read about her and all that she has done thoughout the coastal area of South Carolina, we are proud today to have this monument unveiled in Georgetown,” he said.

Wyatt said that this was a wonderful day to celebrate the life of her three-times great aunt, Harriet Tubman. She also expressed her concern that Harriet Tubman’s story must not be ignored.

“This part of history shows how people are able to fight, endure and overcome through years, through decades, through centuries,” she said. “This statue is a symbol of truth, love, faith, freedom and democracy.”

Wofford said he created the sculpture because he is in awe of Harriet Tubman.

“I bow down to her greatness because she was an amazing human being and it was the honor of my life to be a megaphone for her message,” I am happy to work in her service, to raise her legacy and elevate her story in today’s modern world.”

He said the gathering in Georgetown for the sculpture unveiling was amazing.

“This statue has been to 18 cities and I don’t think I’ve seen a better celebration than what you all put together,” Wofford said. “That gives me hope for the future.”

Mark Stevens, director of tourism development for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, said that supporting this project through the largest marketing grant ever awarded by that organization was an honor.

“The Chamber and the Hammock Coast believe that projects like this not only enhance tourism efforts but also improve and enlighten our community,” he said. “Most importantly, it brings our community together. Isn’t it wonderful to see a dream fulfilled?”

Glander Pressley, a Gullah interpreter and storyteller, stands with Lydella Washington, circulation manager at the Waccamaw Library in front of the sculpture. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Over the next few weeks, there are several events planned to celebrate the life of Harriet Tubman, her grand-nephew James Bowley, who lived in Georgetown, and the Gullah-Geechee culture.

Gullah Kinfolk Traveling Theatre

On Saturday, Aug. 26, at 6 p.m., the Gullah Kinfolk Traveling Theatre will perform at Winyah Auditorium, located at 1200 Highmarket St. in Georgetown.

Harriet Tubman, A One-Woman Show

On Saturday, Sept. 16, at 6 p.m., Harriet Tubman, A One Woman Show, will be performed by Natalie Daise, a Georgetown County storyteller and artist who starred in the highly acclaimed TV show “Gullah Gullah Island” with her husband, Ron. It will be at Winyah Auditorium in Georgetown.

Artisan & Creator Village

On Saturday, Oct. 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., there will be an Artisan & Creator Village featuring a diverse range of artists, including Gullah Geechee creators on the grounds of the Joseph Hayne Rainey Park.


Glander Pressley, a Gullah interpreter and storyteller, traveled with the sculpture to Georgetown County. She said she could imagine her ancestors making stops on the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses on the journey to freedom.

“Already today, I am tired, and I am not at the final spot,” she said at the Waccamaw Library. “So, I can imagine it was a very long, hard journey for them that took a lot of patience.”

She said people at the different stops were excited to see this historical piece of art.

“People are happy to see that this sculpture is being brought through and they are getting the opportunity to actually see it,” Pressley said. “To actually see this happen is almost like giving a face to a person that you have only heard their name all these years.”

Steve Williams, a Georgetown historian and author who is a member of the planning committee for Bringing Harriet Home, said as the sculpture arrived in Georgetown that he was excited about the artwork, which he described as “drop-dead gorgeous.”

“I’ve seen a hundred pictures but seeing the sculpture in person is a whole other thing,” Williams said. “If you look into the eyes, it is kind of scary because it looks like she means business. It is like she is saying, ‘We are getting out of here. It is dangerous, but God has got me’.”

He commented that the crowd as the sculpture arrived at Rainey Park was refreshing.

“This is what we envisioned – a multicultural, multiracial, diverse audience,” Williams said. “I’m enjoying this, and I thank God I have lived to see it.”

He said that Georgetown needs this celebration of its connection to Harriet Tubman.

“A lot of other places have capitalized off their relationship with Harriet Tubman, and it is about time that Georgetown gets credit for what she did for this city,” he said. “And she did it through her great-nephew, James Bowley.”

A crowd gathered as the sculpture was erected at Joseph Rainey Park in Georgetown. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Tubman’s connection to Georgetown

Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 slaves, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. After accomplishing her own escape from enslavement, it was Harriet Tubman’s deep love for her family that propelled her to return to Maryland slave territory to rescue enslaved family members in 1849.

Bowley, his baby sister Araminta, and their mother Kessiah (Tubman’s niece) were the first people Tubman rescued. Once free, Tubman ensured that James received a coveted education. 

Denied the right to an education herself, Tubman knew that literacy was its own liberation. Working long hours to pay for Bowley’s tuition in a Philadelphia school during the 1850s secured his bright future.

After the Civil War, Bowley settled at 231 King St. in Georgetown, where he worked with newly freed people as a teacher and eventually as commissioner of 60 Georgetown County schools. Supported by the Freedman’s Bureau and resources raised (money, books, clothing, food and supplies) by Tubman and her allies in Auburn, New York, Bowley expanded educational opportunities for many in Georgetown County.

Bowley was eventually elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. As a trustee of the University of South Carolina, he opened the doors for Blacks to attend the venerable institution in 1873. Later he published a newspaper (the Georgetown Planet) and became a distinguished probate judge.

Many people said they were affected emotionally by the sculpture that now stands in Joseph Rainey Park in Georgetown. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Other reactions

People who witnessed the the Harriet Tubman sculpture coming to Georgetown said it was an emotional experience.

Lydella Washington, circulation manager at the Waccamaw Library, said she was speechless when she saw the Harriet Tubman sculpture in the library parking lot.

“It brings tears to my eyes to know that she is finally being recognized not only by our culture, but for her struggle,” she said, “and she hasn’t been forgotten.”

Al Joseph, director of the Main Street Program for the City of Georgetown, described the sculpture as awe-inspiring.

“When you really go up and look at it, just the attention to detail of the sculpture itself is really amazing,” he said. “I look forward to the unveiling Saturday and meeting the sculptor, Wesley Wofford.”

He agreed with Williams about the diversity of the crowd.

“Anything that brings people like this out in downtown Georgetown is a win-win,” Joseph said.

From left (facing the camera), Janet Graham, president of the Howard Alumni Association, Georgetown County Council member Lillie Jean Johnson, and Steve WIlliams, historian and author, view the sculpture at Rainey Park. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Janet Graham, president of the Howard Alumni Association, said the Harriet sculpture brings a chill. Howard was the black high school in Georgetown during segregation.

“As soon as I saw it coming down the street, I got emotional,” she said. “It was like she was saying, ‘Here I come!’ ”

She also said that the detail of the sculpture shows the determination on Harriet’s face.

“She is determined to get that young man and get out of there,” Graham said.

Georgetown County Council member Lillie Jean Johnson was in Georgetown on Tuesday. She said that joy is the word that comes to mind when she views the sculpture of Harriet Tubman.

“And when you think of joy, that is something that radiates from within,” Johnson said. “Nobody can give you that.”

She said this is an opportunity for people to come to Georgetown so they can view part of history that is exhibited across the country.

“I hope everybody comes out to see it before it leaves,” she said, “because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Joseph Rainey Park is located at the intersection of Front and King streets in Georgetown. For more information about “Bringing Harriet Home: A Journey to Freedom,” click here.

By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce

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