A proposed Harriet Tubman monument, designed by artist and architect Nina Cooke John, was supposed to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed in the heat of 2020’s unrest.
The vacant space in the newly renamed park, Tubman Square, presented an “opportunity to consider underrepresented histories in its place,” Fayemi Shakur, arts and cultural affairs director for Newark, said.
But there was a disagreement between what Shakur wanted to achieve and what was allowed by a state panel of preservationists. The proposal was recently and unanimously voted down in a temporary denial, which offers Shakur another hearing and sends the plan back to the drawing board.
The Tubman monument falls within the James Street Historic District and requires approval by the state historic preservation office. A major knock against the proposal was that it pitted two cultural groups against each other. Critics railed against the plan for not including stakeholders. For instance, the jury that decided on the winning proposal didn’t include any local Italian-Americans or members of preservation groups.
“Despite our history, our committee was excluded from 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 reserved for Tubman as a path of less resistance.
“I have a significant concern that they did not consider other locations in the park as an option,” said SHPO officer Marilou Ehrler and historian for the National Park Service. “Parks are a great place to bring out the history across time — and I think you lose that when you begin to pick and choose which you’re showing.”
In light of Mayor Ras Baraka’s past statements, questions linger about the reason the Columbus statue was taken down, which should have required state review as well. Shakur said it was done to prevent vandalism. “There were concerns that the monument would be toppled as we had witnessed across the country,” Shakur said.
But in a 2019 poem called What We Want, Baraka signaled his long-term vision to “tear down” monuments to genocide and “replace it with black and brown women.”
Flavia Alaya, SHPO officer, conceded that “Columbus, himself, is not necessarily the image that Italian-Americans want to project.” But “wiping out” their representation in the park, she argued, would make that public space “less inclusive.”
“I don’t see it as removing anyone’s history,” Baraka told the state panel. “We want our kids to know what Columbus did and didn’t do. We want them to know what the 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 is not the whole story of Italian-Americans in Newark?” Alaya asked. “Might there be some way not to alienate Italian-American history, which is extremely deep in Newark, and full of history that would certainly fly in the face of anything that Columbus stood for?”
In 1783, Newarkers, who had fought in a deadly revolt to expel the British, voted to rename the site of the battle — then a grazing meadow — after this Revolutionary War General George Washington, calling it Washington Park. However, contemporary Newarkers succeeded in stripping 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 on the national register, called it the “single most important space in Newark’s history.”