African-American girls soon will see themselves for the first time represented in a public statue in Philadelphia.
The only freestanding bronze statue depicting a Black girl in the city will come to Smith Playground in South Philadelphia this spring.
“It is representative of acknowledging the importance of women and girls, and the role that they have to play in our civic life and community life,” Public Art Director Margot Berg said.
The life-sized bronze statue will depict an African-American female athlete on the cusp of her teenage years playing basketball.
“I wanted to pick a pose that was both durable and interactive, but I’ve been thinking of it as a [basketball] guard at the top of a key,” said Brian McCutcheon, the 52-year-old Indianapolis-based artist who designed the statue. “That moment where you decide whether you drive or pass. ... It’s a decisive moment.”
“The pose is meant to symbolize that decisive moment of that adolescent becoming an adult,” he added.
The statue will be placed on a low pedestal in the northwest corner of the park, where a meaningless metal pole now stands. Park-goers will be able to sit on the pedestal or climb onto it in order to inspect or take selfies with the statue.
It will be dedicated to Philadelphia’s legendary — but little-known — athlete Ora Mae Washington, who is considered by many experts as the greatest female athlete of her era, excelling not only in basketball but tennis, too. Last year, she was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The statue will stand in stark contrast to the majority of statuary throughout Philadelphia, which overwhelmingly depicts historical white men rendered larger than life and perched atop tall pedestals.
“Monumentalizing those people has been neglected,” Berg said, referring to people of color. “It’s just kind of a reflection of our complicated history.”
When it comes to public art pieces dedicated to or named for historical women — not including allegorical or fictional women or murals — they account for only six out of approximately 1,564 pieces citywide.
There is only one piece of public art dedicated to a historical African-American woman: Oney Judge, the former slave who escaped from George Washington’s House. While Judge’s story is told through signage and images at the President’s House at the Independence National Historical Park, there is no statue. A group of statues symbolizing an unnamed Black family also is located in North Philadelphia.
There have been calls in recent months to add more statues of African-American women. Last year, City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker proposed erecting a statue of the trailblazing African-American lawyer and civil rights advocate Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. But that legislation has stalled in City Council.
Berg said city officials wanted to put a statue of an African-American girl in Smith Playground to diversify Philadelphia’s collection of monuments and “right the wrong that has happened over the years in terms of who is represented in our statuary.”
The $25,000 statue is being paid for by the Percent for Art program, which is funded by a 1 percent tax on construction projects in the city and led by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.
McCutcheon’s design was chosen out of 50 submissions. McCutcheon previously lived in South Philadelphia and visited the park while he worked on his design.
The addition of the statue will complement renovations to the 7.6-acre park, which is in a primarily African-American neighborhood near Universal Vare Charter School and Preparatory Charter School. The basketball courts, turf fields and open space are heavily used by the community and an after-school program is run out of the park’s recreation center building.
The nonprofit Make the World Better funded a $3.2 million, two-year renovation and redesign of the playground three years ago. The reimagining of the park included expanding the existing recreation building in the park, resurfacing the basketball courts, installing new turf playing fields, and developing an outdoor fitness area, walking trail and eco-friendly stormwater infrastructure. Make the World Better participated in the commission that selected the statue’s design.
Claire Laver, executive director of Make the World Better, said the statue will be inspirational for children using the park.
“Representation matters,” she said. “Putting a young African-American girl playing basketball in an active pose, I think kids will be able to look at this statue and — where they’re typically used to seeing old white man cast in bronze — they’ll see someone who maybe looks like them that they can see themselves in.”
After the new statue is erected, a new girls-only basketball program will launch at the park. While a co-ed basketball league is offered at the park, a girls-only league hasn’t been held there in years.
Parent and resident Delores Hicks welcomed the arrival of the new statue.
While standing alongside her 9-year-old daughter, Sacred Ingram, in the park, Delores Hicks said the bronze monument could inspire young girls to play basketball and other sports. “Plus, it will replace that ugly metal pole,” she added, with a laugh.
“Just to be able to see that there’s a little girl that somebody made a statue of might inspire them,” said Hicks, a city after-school recreation specialty instructor who works at the park.
Sacred Ingram also gave her approval of a statue that will look like her.
“I think it’s cool because there’s not a lot of statues with Black people,” the fourth-grader said.