Mayor Ras J. Baraka was joined by First Lady Tammy Murphy, State Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz, and numerous other dignitaries today to unveil a new monument honoring Harriet Tubman and pay homage to the city’s role in the Underground Railroad along with the Black liberation movement’s rich history in the area. The ceremony also observed Harriet Tubman Day, which is tomorrow. The monument stands in Harriet Tubman Square, at the intersection of Washington and Broad Streets, in downtown Newark.
Other dignitaries in attendance at today’s ceremony included: Newark Municipal Council members, New Jersey artist and architect Nina Cooke John; Director of Arts & Cultural Affairs fayemi shakur; Audible Founder Don Katz; Audible CEO Bob Carrigan; The Newark Museum of Art Director and CEO Linda C. Harrison; Queen Latifah; and Michele Jones Galvin, who is a descendant of Harriet Tubman and co-author of the book, Beyond the Underground, Aunt Harriet, Moses of Her People, a historical novel on the life of her ancestor.
“In a time when so many cities are choosing to topple statues 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. In a country where the overwhelming majority of monuments are testaments to white males, Newark has chosen to erect a monument to a Black woman who was barely five feet tall, but had the visage and power of a giant,” said Mayor Baraka. “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. Harriet Tubman Square and its interactive centerpiece sculpture, Shadow of a Face, represent our past, present, and future.”
The unveiling additionally heralds the inception of the city’s new Arts & Education District and is the first major step towards a full park revitalization effort to be led by Newark City Parks Foundation.
“Harriet Tubman was a trailblazer, both literally and figuratively, whose legacy is a testament to the strength and resilience of the African American community in our country. Her unwavering commitment to freedom, justice, and equality has inspired countless others to stand up and fight for their rights,” said First Lady Murphy. “Today, we honor her memory and recognize her lasting influence, as we strive to build a more just and equitable New Jersey for all.”
“There are so many people who have impacted the course of our nation and for far too long our parks and historic sites haven’t included the full breath of the American story. I applaud Mayor Ras J. Baraka’s leadership in bringing this to fruition and am proud Newark is part of a greater shift towards recognizing more women and people of color,” said Senate Majority Leader Ruiz. “Nina Cooke John has done an incredible job with this beautiful tribute honoring Harriet Tubman’s legacy.”
Designed by New Jersey native and architect Nina Cooke John, the monument, titled Shadow of a Face, will be the centerpiece of a community gathering space in the recently renamed Harriet Tubman Square. Shadow of a Face replaces a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed in the summer of 2020, amid calls for racial justice, and it puts New Jersey at the forefront of a nationwide movement to design a more inclusive, diverse, and community-centered approach to commissioning civic public art. Recent research conducted by Monument Lab and supported by the Mellon Foundation revealed that monuments across the United States overwhelmingly represent white, male individuals, and that the country’s history as told by many of its current monuments, misrepresents critical parts of its story.
“Shadow of a Face celebrates both the legacy of Harriet Tubman and the lives of the people living in Newark today – connecting their story to Tubman’s story through a common bond of seekers of liberty in the past and in the present,” said Ms. Cooke John. “Her heroism is recognized, and space is claimed for her story in this historic park, while her humanity is made accessible so that we can all be empowered by her deeds both great and small.”
The monument features a circular learning wall that guides visitors through a multi-sensory experience where they can read educational text and hear stories about Tubman’s life and the city’s history of Black liberation. Local historians were commissioned by the city and led by Rutgers University professor Dr. James Amemasor to provide research material for the learning wall and audio stories. A community mosaic includes ceramic tiles created by Newark residents during a dozen workshops led by Ms. Cooke John and Newark-based apprentice artist Adebunmi Gbadebo.
“We are so proud Nina Cooke John won the competition for this monument honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Newark’s Harriet Tubman Square. She brought the creative thunder. A future forward architectural design combined with a robust combination of community created tile works and audio components have been integrated into the monument,” said Ms. Harrison. “Monuments serve as reminders that history is not just in books, but all around us. I hope that visitors will be inspired to be courageous and work to achieve social change.”
The title of the monument, Shadow of a Face, refers to the 1962 poem by Robert Hayden, “Runagate Runagate.” Shadow of a Face was chosen in June 2021 through a national open call and multi-phase selection process. Community engagement was a critical part of Ms. Cooke John’s design proposal. Residents also recorded their personal stories of liberation for the audio experience and were also invited to “buy a brick” to be placed in a designated section of the monument, cementing their own presence during this historic period in Newark.
“I am delighted that we are finally unveiling the Harriet Tubman Monument Project today. It is long overdue. It is extremely important that Newark’s diverse cultures learn, celebrate, and honor the history of Harriet Tubman,” said Municipal Council President LaMonica McIver. “For generations to come, our residents will be able to visit Tubman Square, view this monument, and participate in its interactive features. We are looking forward to cultural activities in and the activation of Tubman Square, which will continue to bring us together to celebrate and explore a unique green space in the City. This is something we all can and should be proud of.”
Headquartered in Newark’s Tubman Square, Audible advances neighborhood revitalization efforts through direct community and economic investments. Audible’s permanent on-site audio experience at the monument includes seminal stories of Ms. Tubman’s life intertwined with narratives about the Underground Railroad and the history of free Black communities in New Jersey.
Released today, Monumental: Harriet Tubman and Newark’s Liberation Movement was created by Newark native Pia Wilson and performed by Newark native Queen Latifah and a talented cast. The audio experience will be made accessible to listeners around the world free of charge on Audible. Related school curricula featuring audio clips were also made available today in collaboration with the Newark Museum of Art. The audio segments will also be available through the Audible Places app this Spring and the Newark Museum of Art’s digital guide on Bloomberg Connects, a free arts and culture app developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“Audible is deeply committed to creating a vibrant, 24/7 streetscape in our neighborhood, one that draws on the city’s remarkable history and showcases the immense talent and innovation we see in Newark today,” said Mr. Katz. “We are thrilled to be able to produce this audio experience to enrich the visits of everyone who will come to our home town to see this amazing new monument honoring a truly monumental figure in our shared history.”
“Let’s forever remember Harriet Tubman for her compassion, courage, bravery, service to others, and her commitment to faith, family, fortitude and freedom,” said Ms. Galvin. “In the spirit of Harriet Tubman, I know that the monument that we are about to unveil will memorialize her heroism, will inspire future generations to take action when they see injustice, and will instill the value of service to the most vulnerable in our society.”
Public programming to accompany the unveiling, will include The Newark Museum of Art’s Community Day: Her Story/Our Story, a celebration on Saturday, March 11, featuring live performances, art-making activities, gallery tours, and more to honor the arrival of the new public monument and the reinstallation of the museum’s Seeing America 18th & 19th Century galleries.
The Harriet Tubman Monument project was led by City of Newark Arts and Cultural Affairs Director fayemi shakur and funded by the City of Newark, Audible, The Mellon Foundation, and individual residents in collaboration with The Newark City Parks Foundation, Newark Arts, The Newark Museum of Art, and the Newark Public Library.
“Nina Cooke John’s visionary conception of Harriet Tubman not only commemorates her transformative shaping of American history, but also reimagines what monuments across the United States could become,” said Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation. “Centered in a community convening space and standing at the forefront of the city’s new Arts & Education District, this is a monument that celebrates and honors the collective work of liberation and racial justice that Tubman and subsequent generations of civil rights activists have led – and continue to lead in Newark and beyond.”