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'About time': Philadelphia unveils first statue of African American girl

Smith Playground summer campers meet "MVP" for the first time. (Credit: Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, City of Philadelphia 2019)

Cast in bronze, a statue called “MVP” depicts an adolescent African American girl in vintage basketball gear with her braids in a headband standing fiercely at five feet and four inches; she weighs 250 pounds. With her feet spread wide and a basketball tucked into her side, she appears to be planning her next maneuver.

But without moving a finger, “MVP” has already set in motion a game-changing play in Philadelphia as the first statue of an African American girl in the city — and residents say it’s “about time.”

“It’s inspirational for my daughter to see. Finally a statue that bares her likeness,” a Philadelphia native commented on Facebook.

The groundbreaking statue was unveiled to the public on August 1 at the Smith Memorial Playground and Recreation Center in South Philadelphia — a location that has served as a cornerstone for families in the historically low-income, predominantly Black community for decades.

“MVP is significant and historic as it is Philadelphia’s first freestanding statue depicting an individual African American girl,” Kelly Lee, the city’s Chief Cultural Officer of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, said in a statement. “MVP represents the power and potential of young girls, exemplifying the pursuit of success through dedication and hard work.”

“MVP” will be the first monument that honors the community it serves — and it’s the reason why artist Brian McCutcheon’s proposal was selected by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy under its Percent for Public Art program.

“My main motivation was to make a monument to the kids that use the park,” McCutcheon tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think everybody involved felt like we’re in a moment when public art monuments in our city should reflect the residents. That’s certainly what we were hoping to do.”

The unveiling of “MVP” comes amid a push for more diversity and inclusion in major city public monuments, including New York City. McCutcheon, 54, wanted to create a statue of a Philadelphia-based role model that residents could see as an inspiration to their community. After considering multiple female African American athletic figures, McCutcheon and city officials decided to honor female hidden figure Ora Washington (1898-1971) with the monument.

From L to R: Mr. Ron, Kathryn Ott Lovell, Connor Barwin, Brian Abernathy, Jacque Liu, Margot Berg, Brian McCutcheon. (Credit: Tony Webb / Office of the City Representative, City of Philadelphia 2019)

Before tennis icon Serena Williams, Washington was pushing boundaries for Black female athletes in tennis. Raised in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, Washington was the top tennis player in the racially segregated American Tennis Association — Helen Willis Moody, the no. 1 white female tennis player of the time, refused to play her.

As if one sport wasn’t enough, Washington also dominated on the basketball court, playing for the Philadelphia Tribunes, one of the leading women’s sports teams in basketball history, according to BlackPast.

“[Ora Washington] is an athlete from the 1900s [who] was arguably one of the greatest athletes of the era and was unrecognized because she was African American,” says McCutcheon. “We came to an agreement that dedicating the statue to Ora Washington would be well-deserved.”

“MVP” was the final touch to a sweeping renovation of the Smith Playground, turning the decades-worn community space into a “world class park,” according to McCutcheon. The statue was commissioned for $25,000 by the city of Philadelphia through its Percent for Public Art program. According to a press release on the City of Philadelphia’s website, the program mandates that “one percent of the total dollar amount of any City-funded construction project be devoted to original site-specific public art,” and was pioneered in Philadelphia in 1959.

Now, “MVP” will join the city’s multitude of 1,500 publicly commissioned sculptures, very few of which are female or African American. Although “MVP” is new to the locale, Philly residents say that her impact is profound and long-lasting.

“The purpose of the statue is to remind little Black girls and boys that their lives are worth something too!” a Philly native commented on Facebook. “Especially in todays times with so much racism and people saying Black people are worthless! Thank you for such a beautiful and lively piece of art!”

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