City of Newark requests artists for Harriet Tubman monument in historical park

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Newark plans to pay tribute to a Civil War hero, and historically significant contributor in the underground railroad, following them removing the statue of Christopher Columbus.

In the beginning of a hot summer fueled by nationwide protests against racial injustice, Newark was one of dozens of cities that took down statues of racist historical figures. Months later, their plan revealed an initiative to replace the effigy of Christopher Columbus with famed freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman.

Recently, Newark announced a request for qualifications, inviting artists over 18-years-old to submit an application to design a permanent public monument to Tubman in Washington Park.

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“Harriet Tubman is one of the greatest figures in American history generally and African-American history specifically. Her courage, valor, activism, and spirit of self-sacrifice made her a role model in times of civil unrest and the Civil War,” Mayor Ras Baraka said.

Best known for making multiple trips to the South during slavery, Tubman assisted enslaved Blacks in their escape. At one point, Tubman even used Newark as a hideaway for one of her stops in the famed Underground Railroad network.

By far, Harriet Tubman is the most noted Black woman to serve in the Civil War. Tubman is celebrated for being the first woman to lead US soldiers into combat. After learning of a Confederate stockpile of ammunition and supplies in South Carolina, she and a regiment of colored troops went down the Combahee River on June 2, 1863 into battle. They burned down most of the large slave plantations, thus freeing 750 people.

The downtown green space where the Tubman statue will sit, is named after George Washington, the country’s first president. Washington, another controversial person, was a slave owner of a large plantation in Virginia, of which he used the teeth of some of those enslaved for his dentures. While Washington’s statue will remain, the park will also go through a name change: Tubman Square.

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Over 100 cities experienced protests after the George Floyd police killing in May of 2020. Newark, New Jersey held peaceful protests for several weekends. Photo credit: Jakayla Toney on Unsplash.

“Newark Arts stands with Mayor Baraka in supporting the creation of a monument in honor of Harriet Tubman. Our public spaces should be sources of pride for all of our residents. We welcome the opportunity to invite artists to participate in celebrating the legacy of a great African-American woman,” said Jeremy Johnson, Newark Arts Executive Director.

Newark is a predominantly Black city with the next significant population being Latino. Before, the city hosted waves of Dutch, Germans, and lastly Irish and Italians. The erection of the Columbus statue was a gift to the city by Italian diasporans who once brokered political, cultural and economic power.

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With the emergence of African Americans then those of the African and Latin American diaspora, the landscape of the city reflects the change. This is also evident in its art scene. “The monument represents a step toward fostering a more diverse and inclusive public art collection for the City of Newark,” said Arts and Cultural Affairs Director fayemi shakur.

Because of Newark’s long standing features and festivals dedicated to art, in 2017, it was named one of the top 10 cities in the US for artists to live. Even the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka is a spoken word artist who is the son of famous poet, Amiri Baraka. Mayor Baraka released a spoken word piece during the pandemic to give inspiration called, “What we want.”

In the city’s release they said that they want to use this project as a path forward to future revitalization, maintenance, and programming of the park. The deadline to submit an RFQ is Friday, December 18.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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