A proposed Harriet Tubman monument, designed by artist and architect Nina Cooke John, was meant to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed in the heat of the 2020 unrest.
The vacant space in the newly renamed park, Tubman Square, presented an “opportunity to consider underrepresented stories in their place,” said Fayemi Shakur, director of arts and cultural affairs for Newark.
But there was a disagreement between what Shakur wanted to accomplish and what was authorized by a state panel of conservatives. The proposal was recently unanimously rejected in a temporary denial, which offers Shakur another hearing and sends the plan back to the drawing board.
The Tubman Monument is part of the James Street Historic District and requires approval from the state historic preservation office. A major blow against the proposal was that it pitted two cultural groups against each other. Critics railed against the plan for not including stakeholders. For example, the jury who decided the winning proposal did not include any local Italian Americans or members of preservation groups.
“Despite our history, our committee was left out of every aspect of this plan,” said Liz Del Tufo, who founded Newark Landmarks in the 1970s. “Now I understand why. The plan is a disaster, causing chaos and accomplishing nothing.
Del Tufo said Tubman is a “heroine who deserves her own space” and wondered why the city’s new 22-acre downtown park, Mulberry Commons, wasn’t set aside for Tubman as a path to less resistance.
“I’m very concerned that they didn’t consider other locations in the park as an option,” said Marilou Ehrler, SHPO manager and National Park Service historian. “Parks are a great place to bring out history through time – and I think you lose that when you start choosing what you show.”
In light of Mayor Ras Baraka’s past statements, questions remain about why the Columbus statue was taken down, which should also have required a state review. Shakur said this was done to prevent vandalism. “There was concern that the monument would be toppled as we had seen across the country,” Shakur said.
But in a 2019 poem titled What we wantBaraka signaled her long-term vision to “tear down” genocide monuments and “replace it with black and brown women.”
SHPO agent Flavia Alaya conceded that “Columbus, itself, is not necessarily the image that Italian Americans want to project”. But “annihilating” their representation in the park, she says, would make this public space “less inclusive”.
“I don’t see this as suppressing anyone’s story,” Baraka told the state panel. “We want our kids to know what Columbus did and didn’t do. We want them to know what Confederates and Nazis did and didn’t do.
Alaya wondered if there was a way to honor Tubman without being “confrontational.”
“But surely the story of Columbus isn’t the whole story of Italian Americans in Newark?” Alaya asked. “Could there be a way to not alienate Italian-American history, which is extremely deep in Newark, and full of history that would certainly run counter to everything Columbus stood for?”
In 1783, the Newarkers, who had fought in a deadly revolt to drive out the British, voted to rename the battle site – then a grazing meadow – after that Revolutionary War general George Washington, calling it Washington Park. However, contemporary Newarkers managed to remove the name of the nation’s first president from the park because Washington was a slave owner.
Del Tufo, who wrote the nomination to include the park in the National Register, called it “the most significant space in Newark’s history.”