Nina Cooke John–designed Harriet Tubman monument unveiled in Newark

(DreamPlay/Cesar Melgar)

Last week, Newark mayor Ras J. Baraka, New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, state senate majority leader M. Teresa Ruiz, and a slew of other dignitaries pulled back the curtain on a new monument honoring abolitionist and social activist Harriet Tubman. As previously reported by AN, the monument, which was designed by Jamaica-born architect Nina Cooke John and is titled Shadow of a Face, replaces a statue of Christopher Columbus that once stood in what was called Washington Park and is now, as of Juneteenth 2022, known as Harriet Tubman Square.

“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,” Mayor Baraka said at the unveiling. “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.”

(DreamPlay/Cesar Melgar)

The monument takes the form of a circular “learning wall” that guides visitors through a multi-sensory experience that includes educational text and audio stories about Tubman’s life and the city’s history of Black liberation. A carving of Tubman’s face graces the exterior of the wall and her silhouette, towering above the wall, is shaped by steel frames at the center of the circle. The City of Newark commissioned local historians, led by Rutgers University professor Dr. James Amemasor, to provide research material for the wall text and audio stories. The wall also features a mosaic composed of ceramic tiles made by Newark residents during a dozen workshops led by Cooke John and Newark-based apprentice artist Adebunmi Gbadebo.

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,” Cooke John said. “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.”

(Ashlee Harrison)

The monument’s audio experience was created by Audible, which is headquartered in Newark. It includes stories of Tubman’s life intertwined with narratives about the Underground Railroad and the history of free Black communities in New Jersey. Titled Monumental: Harriet Tubman and Newark’s Liberation Movement, the audio script was written by Pia Wilson and performed by Queen Latifah along with a talented cast. The audio experience will be made accessible to listeners around the world free of charge on Audible.

According to the City of Newark, the unveiling of the monument also heralds the inception of the city’s new Arts & Education District and is the first major step toward a full park revitalization effort to be led by Newark City Parks Foundation.

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