A towering monument honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman was unveiled Thursday in Newark, New Jersey. In the place where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood now stands a statue of the abolitionist and champion for women’s rights in a park that bears her name.
Tubman, who escaped slavery in Maryland, returned to bring her family to freedom and became one of the most well-known figures on the Underground Railroad.
In 2022, the city’s former Washington Park was renamed Harriet Tubman Square on Juneteenth. Tubman reportedly passed enslaved runaways through the Presbyterian church in Newark as part of the Underground Railroad, a vast network of safe houses and contacts through which people risked their lives to escape or help others flee slave-holding areas of the United States.
“People need to understand that Harriet Tubman is an American hero, not just an African American hero. She is a figure two who represents what democracy should be and what freedom should be,” says Fayemi Shakur, Arts and Cultural Affairs Director For The City of Newark.
“At a time when you hear politicians talking about critical race theory and banning Black history, banning books, overturning affirmative action, art can be used as a tool for dialogue,” she tells ESSENCE.
The 25-foot-tall monument, titled “Shadow of a Face,” is the work of architect Nina Cooke John. It is made of steel and extends into a trellis that visitors can walk under. A wall displays timelines of Tubman’s life and Newark’s abolitionist history, while an audio narration by actress and Newark native Queen Latifah plays overhead. The monument’s title was inspired by Robert Hayden’s poem “Runagate Runagate,” which describes enslaved people seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“I think what primarily inspired me about Harriet Tubman is that she was so many things, we primarily know her as the conductor in the Underground Railroad, but she did so much more…she was multifaceted,” Cooke John tells ESSENCE.
“So how do I really recognize this greatness and what was this small woman who was five feet tall and rightfully put her up on a pedestal…she needed to claim space and rightfully be seen from afar and take her rightful position in that park,” she adds.
In addition, Cooke John says she was intentional about placing a mosaic of Tubman’s face at eye level.
“You can look into her eyes and touch her face and connect to her, to her humanity,” she told ESSENCE. “It could be your mother, your aunt, your grandmother, and in so doing, be that much more inspired by her, and that inspiration be much more long-lasting.”