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How Dance Helped Create This North Carolina Celebration Of Harriet Tubman

"Journey to Freedom" will be at Bridge Park in Sylva until December 20th.
"Journey to Freedom" will be at Bridge Park in Sylva until Dec. 20.

Downtown Sylva has a new addition — a sculpture of Harriet Tubman.   
The 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture called “Journey to Freedom” sits in Bridge Park.

“Looking at the sculpture, I'm like, that’s not my face but those are my hands, those are my feet, that’s my body," said Jada Bryson. "Like, I am Harriet Tubman, too.”

Jada Bryson stands outside Bent Willow Baking Co. in Franklin.
Lilly Knoepp
Jada Bryson stands outside Bent Willow Baking Co. in Franklin.

Bryson is a dance teacher in Franklin, where her family has lived for as long as they have records. She was dancing at a Macon County Women’s History Trail event when she was approached by Cashiers sculptor Wesley Wofford

"One of the reasons why he asked me to do it is because I'm a dancer and I have the stamina and flexibility to hold a position for a significant amount of time,” said Bryson, who runs the Dance Arts Co-Op at Cowee School.  

“Most people think, 'Oh, you just go and you stand there and someone takes your picture and that's it.' It's not like that at all,” said Bryson. “Each muscle has to do something. You have to be in movement, but you're completely still, so it's very difficult to do.”

Bryson says that through teaching dance she hopes to teach young people about freedom and acceptance, so modeling as Harriet Tubman has been inspiring.

“When I first did this, I had no idea what it would do to me spiritually and emotionally, Bryson said. "Harriet Tubman is about freedom and leading people to freedom. And in my own personal life, I strive to be an example for children and to lead them into an emotional and spiritual freedom. And so it's helped me to realize more of my purpose in life, actually.”

The sculpture echoes ongoing conversations about how history is remembered — including local Confederate monuments. On the same day that the Harriet Tubman sculpture was being installed, a new plaque was being placed on the Confederate monument just up the hill at the historic Jackson County Courthouse.

The juxtaposition isn’t lost on Bryson. Franklin has its own Confederate monument in the town square. Local activists are also planning a march in remembrance of the 1898 lynching of Mitch Mozeley in November.  There is also a memorial for Mozeley in Alabama as part of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

“I think (the Harriet Tubman sculpture) is going to bring awareness to the issues that are going around with why people are so upset about the Confederate sculptures,” said Bryson. “I'm all about history. I love history, and I think it's important to show all of history and that's what it's been so far. It's just a very one-sided history and it's time that more sides are shown.”

Bryson says she learned a lot about Tubman while posing as her. Beyond Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad, she is also credited with being a spy during the Civil War,  sneaking beyond Confederate lines to gather information and obtain battle plans. But Bryson’s favorite fact about Tubman is who she saved on the Underground Railroad.

“That's my favorite is that she was the only one that would take children,” said Bryson.

Dr. Dana Murray Patterson, president of the Jackson County NAACP, says that the plan to bring the sculpture to town has been in the works for over a year. She hopes that the sculpture inspires learning and hard conversations in the county.

“Where there are other stories that have been championed and lifted up and privileged throughout the history of this region, I think this is finally an opportunity for us to privilege, lift up and to add voice to some of the stories that have been less told,” said Patterson, who is director of Intercultural Affairs at Western Carolina University.

Dogwood Health Trust, Western Carolina University and Jackson County Arts Council were just some of the partners involved in bringing the sculpture to Sylva. Patterson says she hopes that people see their own stories in the life of Tubman.

“Harriet Tubman, I think she stands for a lot of different things for a lot of different people, Patterson said. "For me, as a Black woman, that courage and determined attitude that she had is really prevalent in a lot of my own work, and she is really a role model for me.”  

The sculpture will be exhibited at Bridge Park until Dec. 21.

A celebration by the Jackson County NAACP for the sculpture called “Journey To Freedom — Together”  was held Sept. 26 at Bridge Park.

Copyright 2021 BPR News. To see more, visit BPR News.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.