Harriet Tubman monument picked in Newark

Shadow of a Face, a proposed monument honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman that was designed by Montclair architect Nina Cooke John, was selected to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that once stood at Washington Park in Newark, New Jersey.

The Columbus statue, one of two in Newark, was removed in June 2020.

The space will be renamed Harriet Tubman Square once the monument is installed at the National Register of Historic Places-listed urban green space in the heart of downtown Newark at some point next year.

The Kingston, Jamaica-born founder of multidisciplinary architecture and design practice Studio Cooke John, beat out four other finalists in the running to design the Tubman monument for Washington Park. Entrants were asked to design a work recognizing the Underground Railroad, and its historical significance to Newark.

She began her professional career designing houses in Connecticut, Arizona and Virginia with the architecture firm Voorsanger and Associates. John went on to work on large cultural institutional projects like the New York Botanical Gardens master plan, the Clinton Library and the Biltmore Theater at Polshek Partnership (now Ennead).

For two decades Nina has been a sought-after educator, having taught architecture and design strategy at Syracuse University and currently at Parsons the New School for Design. Nina has been a registered architect since 2000 holding licenses in New York and New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor of Architecture at Cornell University in 1995 and a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University in 1998.

The other final proposals, first revealed to the public in early March, were: Harriet’s Bridge by Abigail DeVille, Keep Going by Dread Scott, Freedom Train by Jules Arthur, and Harriet Tubman on the Road to Freedom by Vinnie Bagwell.

“Nearly one year after our nation’s racial reckoning and just in time for this year’s celebration of Juneteenth, we are proud to announce the design selected for our new Harriet Tubman monument,” Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka said in an announcement revealing the winning proposal.

“It is only fitting that we memorialize Tubman’s heroic efforts leading enslaved Africans to freedom via the Underground Railroad at this time of year when we celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States,” said Baraka. “ Ms. John’s work of public art will be a symbol of hope and optimism for generations to come, not only for our Newark community, but also for the entire country.”

In October 2020, the City of Newark announced that it will install a new monument honoring Harriet Tubman and Newark’s role in the Underground Railroad in downtown Washington Park, to replace the statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed last summer.

The city will also rename Washington Park to Tubman Square in 2022 when the new monument will be installed. The heroic abolitionist made Newark an important stop on the Underground Railroad as she personally led enslaved African-Americans out of the South to freedom.

Five critically acclaimed artists: Abigail DeVille, Dread Scott, Jules Arthur, Nina Cooke John, and Vinnie Bagwell, were chosen by a jury to submit their designs. The design submitted by Montclair architect and artist Nina Cooke John (bottom left) was selected.

City officials said the monument will offer visitors a “multi-sensory experience,” with a large profile of Tubman and text throughout the area to highlight dates in her life and names of safe houses in New Jersey.

“As a woman, a Black woman, and mother of three girls, I am delighted to bring my memorial for Harriet Tubman to life in Newark,” the artist, John, said. “My design creates a welcoming space for people to connect with Tubman as well as interact and reflect on their own liberation from whatever weight they might be carrying. This is a monument for the community and by the community.”

Newark-based artist Adebunmi Gbadebo will apprentice with John, working on research and community engagement.

The an Italian explorer and navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, resulting in the first European contact with the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

While celebrated for paving the way for widespread European exploration and colonization of the Americas, Columbus is criticized for his alleged brutality and initiating the depopulation of the indigenous Americans, whether by disease or intentional genocide.

As a result of both the protests and riots that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020, many public monuments of Christopher Columbus began to be removed. At least 33 Christopher Columbus statues have been taken down since the renewed Black Lives Matter protests began in late spring, according to CBS News.

A 2019 study published in the journal Quaternary Science Review estimated that between 1492 and 1600, about 55 million people in the Americas died. The Taíno people were virtually wiped out in the decades after Columbus first arrived on the island of Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican Republic sit today. 

Some Italian-American leaders have been frustrated that the Columbus statues were taken down, because they have long viewed the explorer as an emblem of Italian heritage.

As the discourse about the removal of monuments valorizing white supremacist or colonial figures continues to evolve amid Black Lives Matter protests, memorials to Christopher Columbus are at the center of a curious debate between those who advocate for their destruction or removal and those calling for the monuments to be preserved.

Some groups, including the Italian-American Heritage Society of Chicago, supported the removal of the Columbus statues. In an interview with the Chicago Sun Times, the founder and president of the organization, Gabriel Piemonte, told reporters that the statue was “a disgrace to the city.”

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