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Creating a monument to Harriet Tubman 'rooted in community' in Newark, NJ


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Michael Hill: In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, many communities around the country started to take a closer look at the mostly white men memorialized on public statues.

Monuments to confederate leaders were removed and activists targeted statues of slave-owning founders and monuments to Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who "discovered" America.

In Newark, New Jersey, officials commissioned a new monument to replace a statue of Columbus. It's dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was selected to be the first Black person and woman depicted on U.S. currency -- the $20 bill.

Tubman escaped slavery and then risked her life to lead other enslaved people to freedom using the underground railroad.

She once said, "God's time is always near. He gave me my strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant I should be free."

Michael Hill: This is the community engagement that architect Nina Cooke John envisioned for the monument that she's been commissioned to create for Newark's city center.

Nina Cooke John: Both New Jersey, as well as Newark, played a really important role in the Underground Railroad.

Michael Hill: At the Newark Museum of Art on a recent Friday evening, community members were designing clay tiles after reflecting on what liberation means to them.

Cooke John will permanently embed these tiles as part of a new monument to legendary Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Mayor Ras Baraka says the decision to highlight Tubman was in line with a 5-year-old campaign to rethink who sits upon pedestals in this mostly black and brown city.

Ras Baraka: We thought it wasn't enough to remove statues. We thought that we should be replacing them and building them and talking about the history itself. And so Harriet Tubman obviously came to mind for us because the Underground Railroad actually existed in Newark in that downtown community.

Michael Hill: According to legend, Tubman led runaway slaves to Newark's First Presbyterian Church - which still stands in downtown Newark today - and its basement, a stop on the Railroad for runaways to reach as far away as Canada.

Tubman also worked as a maid in Cape May in southern New Jersey, using her wages to support the underground railroad. But for Tubman to take her place in Newark, Columbus had to go. During the social justice protests in Spring of 2020, Mayor Baraka decided to have the city remove the statue one night. At the time, he said Columbus's removal was quote "a statement against the barbarism, enslavement, and oppression that this explorer represents."

This is all that's left of the Christopher Columbus statue. Cooke John's monument to Harriet Tubman will replace this. It will include a two and a half story tall structure, a figure for visitors literally to walk into.

Nina Cooke John: I envision, you know, you would stand here so you would stand within this space and you could feel like, you know, you are a part of her. You are part of this legacy that is Harriet Tubman. You know, you are Harriet Tubman.

Michael Hill: A Newark committee of historians, art experts and civic leaders selected Cooke John's design. The center of which is a series of intertwined profiles of Tubman and where the profiles connect at the head - a north star, which will be lit up at night. The monument also includes a wall with historical facts, room for congregating, and an oversized figure of Tubman's face at the street level.

Nina Cooke John: And what I'm hoping for is that for people to really connect with Harriet Tubman on a personal level and see her more as as an everyday person who did heroic things. And so, by engaging with, I think, by bridging the connection to her through larger ideas of liberation, where they can walk around the monument, where they can touch her face, it will be something that they can feel more connected to.

Michael Hill: Hold on a second. You said. Touch her face. Most architects, most artists would say. Don't touch that.

Nina Cooke John: No, we want them to touch her face. And so the oversize face of Harriet Tubman that will be on one of the walls of the monument, I'm actually planning on making it up of many different pieces so that it's actually more textured and invites people to touch so that they're actually physically connected to her and not only connect it to her story.

Michael Hill: Are you trying to create an experience by people visiting this monument?

Nina Cooke John: Absolutely. It should be an experience and experience rooted in the Harriet Tubman story, but also an experience rooted in community. So it also should be a place that you come and hang out in. It really should be a space that activates the park, but also activates community engagement. I think when people feel connected to physical things that represent their community, they're more engaged in larger community life and community political life.

Michael Hill: Which is where events such as this tile-making workshop come in. Giving the community a sense of 'ownership' in the monument.

Nina Cooke John: the tiles that you make in this workshop today, will represent the people of Newark and your struggles, your own liberation stories integrated with the liberation stories of Harriet Tubman.

Michael Hill: Cheryl Forbes was etching a flag of her native Jamaica and crosses, her own north star.

Cheryl Forbes: Slaves when they were going through the trials and tribulations of their lives, prayer got them through. Song got them through and community with each other. So this is like my linkage to my past.

Michael Hill: Donald Wallace worked on an image of an African drum.

Donald Wallace: I wanted them to feel that connection that she had to Africa. And the fact that I guess the drum in some ways symbolizes the ability to communicate over distance and they were able to still overcome things and achieve things even in their adversity that they were suffering.

Michael Hill: And a sense of permanence was also a draw for some participants. What do you think of your tile permanently becoming part of the Harriet Tubman monument?

Graham Squires: I'd be really proud to show this to my kids someday.

Michael Hill: Darryl Dwayne directs community engagement at the Newark Museum of art. He says choosing Tubman to replace Columbus resonates with the community. Is there a connection from Harriet Tubman to the present right now?

Darryl Dwayne: Oh, certainly Harriet Tubman legacy still lives on today. I mean, the fight for equity in the fight for equality for people of color is an ongoing thing that, until it's fully leveraged, is going to be something that we're constantly fighting for. I feel that art has always been the doorway in the doorway that grabs the attention of the public, and once you have their attention, you do something with it. So hopefully we hope this sculpture will do just that.

Michael Hill: Mayor Ras Baraka says his decision to remove Columbus sparks controversy to this day.

Ras Baraka: Even in here in New Jersey, I'm getting pushed back saying that what we're doing is anti this group of anti this person and we are destroying history. But that's not the case. What we will be actually doing is telling history as it is. And we're including ourselves in it. You know, so much of the time we've been not included in it. Our story has not been told. So we're including ourselves in history to make a full presentation of what actually took place.

Michael Hill: Architect Nina Cooke John says she hopes the monument is an immersive experience. She's also partnered with audio company Audible, whose headquarters border the park, to capture and incorporate oral histories of local Newarkers. The final monument will be unveiled here next summer - and the whole park will be renamed from Washington Square to Harriet Tubman Square: replacing the name of the nation's slave-owning first president with that of the conductor of the Underground Railroad.

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