(NEWARK, N.J.) — A new monument honoring Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was unveiled Thursday in downtown Newark, New Jersey.
“Shadow of a Face” sits in the town’s newly created Arts and Education District, replacing a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told ABC News that amid citizens across the nation removing statues of historical figures during nationwide racial protests, their city “got ahead of it,” and removed Columbus’ statue in the summer of 2020.
“We also wanted to make sure that we put something up because it wasn’t just about removing things, it was also about representing the wholeness and fullness of history,” Baraka said. “And so, we wanted to do that in Newark, and be one of the first folks to put something up in place of statues that were taken down.”
The multi-sensory exhibit offers viewers a new take on historic monuments, with a partnership with Audible providing an auditory experience, in addition to visual and touch.
The center of the piece features an abstract interpretation of Tubman around 25 feet tall and totes a learning wall, featuring educational text that will couple with narrations from citizens of Newark, including Newark native and Grammy-award-winning artist Queen Latifah.
“I learned so much during the creation of this project, and we hope this monument brings Harriet Tubman’s resistance and integrity to people everywhere who really need to hear it. We want people to know, to feel, to understand what was at stake and how incredibly brave Harriet Tubman was,” Latifah said during the press event.
The city issued a nationwide call for artists to apply to produce the piece, and Nina Cooke John was one of five finalists city officials and members chosen.
John, 50, prides herself in abstract expression regarding her architecture and public art piece. She told ABC News that this piece is special to her in addition to being her first permanent public art piece.
“I drew inspiration from Harriet Tubman herself. Really thinking about how to represent this complex woman,” John said. “So just as a humanitarian all around, she was a really amazing woman. So how do I kind of put her up on a pedestal, but really allow us to connect with her one-to-one as a woman.”
Arts and Cultural affairs director at the City of Newark fayemi shakur spearheaded the project for the town, sharing the importance it has to the city specifically.
“People should be able to see themselves in the art around them. And most of our monuments, you know, are of white men or of times of war, very few women figures, very few Black people, people of color, and so this was an opportune time for us to think, really intentional about how we could reimagine public art,” shakur said.
Newark was the location of stops and safe houses on the Underground Railroad, and there is a town legend, according to city administrators, Tubman led runaway slaves to Newark’s First Presbyterian Church – which still stands in downtown Newark today.
The creation of the project took over two years, and was funded by the city, Audible and the Mellon Foundation’s Monument Project, a 2020 initiative focusing on creating monuments throughout the nation of those “who have often been denied historical recognition.”
“With the unveiling of the Harriet Tubman monument this morning, we tell a more complete account of history, and we at Audible are extremely honored to play a small role in that,” Bob Carrigan, CEO of Audible, said at the event.
Sen. Cory Booker, former Newark mayor, also shared his excitement and thanks for the project during Thursday’s event by sending a video.
“This monument will spark an appreciation for a woman who was defined as courage, and a humble, powerful radicalism based in the fundamental ideals of love. It should inspire all of us to action, it should inspire all of us to love our country, not through what we say or the symbols, but through what we do,” he said.
Audible founder Don Katz and distant niece of the Underground Railroad trailblazer Michele John Gavin were also in attendance.
“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,” she said during the event.
The unveiling comes just one day before Harriet Tubman Day on March 10.
“This commission has meant a lot to me as an artist, as an architect, as a woman, and as a mother of Black girls,” John said. “It means a lot to me not only because it provided me with the opportunity to create art in public space, telling the multi-layered story of a powerhouse of a woman.”
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.