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A monument honoring famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman was unveiled in Newark, New Jersey, this week, replacing a statue of Christopher Columbus removed in 2020 amid social injustice protests, officials said.
The 25-foot-tall monument, titled “Shadow of a Face,” was revealed Thursday at the heart of the city’s recently renamed Harriet Tubman Square, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced in a statement.
“In a time when so many cities are choosing to topple statutes that limit the scope of their people’s story, we have chosen to erect a monument that spurs us into our future story of exemplary strength and solidity,” Baraka said.
“We have created a focal point in the heart of our city that expresses our participation in an ongoing living history of a people who have grappled through many conflicts to steadily lead our nation in its progress toward racial equality.”
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and eventually escaped to Pennsylvania. From 1850 to 1860, she made more than a dozen trips to Maryland to help enslaved people reach freedom through the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses, according to the US National Parks Service.
The name of Tubman’s monument was inspired by the 1962 poem “Runagate Runagate” by Robert Hayden, which references the abolitionist. The monument was selected in June 2021 following a national open call and multiphase selection process, Baraka said.
Monument designer and architect Nina Cooke John said she wanted to incorporate the Newark community into the monument.
“One way I wanted to bring about their connection is really to meet the community with the prompt, ‘What is your story of liberation? What is your story – big or small – of really overcoming multiple obstacles that we all have to overcome,’ ” Cooke John said in an interview published by the Harriet Tubman Monument Project.
Michele Jones Gavin, Tubman’s three-times great-grand niece, said the monument will commemorate the activist’s heroism and inspire future generations to take action in the face of injustice.
“Let’s forever remember Harriet Tubman, for her compassion, courage, bravery, service to others, her patriotism, and her commitment to faith, family, fortitude, and freedom,” Gavin said.
The Columbus statue Tubman’s memorial replaces was removed amid a nationwide racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The movement spurred the removal or renaming of dozens of monuments, including those of Confederate leaders and other controversial figures in US history.
Columbus has long been a contentious figure for his treatment of the Indigenous communities he encountered and for his role in the violent colonization at their expense.
The monument includes two sections: a portrait wall and a mosaic of tiles, all contained within a circular learning wall inscribed with stories of Tubman’s life and Newark’s history of Black liberation, the mayor’s statement said.
The portrait wall features a larger-than-life depiction of Tubman while the mosaic features stories from Newark residents.
“Not only are their stories physically a part of the monument, but they can also come to the monument and feel that ownership because they were really a part of creating it,” Cooke John said in her interview with the Harriet Tubman Monument Project.
“Seeing their stories being a part of other stories of people from Newark in this mosaic that’s on the wall and is attached to the backside of the wall that has Harriet Tubman’s face, the central figure which grounds us in the larger-than-life story of Harriet Tubman.”
Residents also recorded some of their personal stories for the monument’s audio experience, according to the mayor’s statement. The audio experience includes the story of Tubman’s life, narrated by entertainer Queen Latifah. Audio clips will also be included in school curricula, in collaboration with the Newark Museum of Art.
To complement the monument, galleries at the Newark Museum of Art will incorporate stories related to slavery and the slave trade, Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, deputy director for learning and engagement at the Newark Museum of Art, said in a video interview published by the Harriet Tubman Monument Project.
Harriet Tubman Square is near the intersection of Washington and Broad streets in downtown Newark’s arts district.