Newark's Mayor Ras Baraka speaks at a ceremony to rename Washington Park as Harriet Tubman Square. He announced plans to create the Newark Arts and Education District, at the square, to mark Juneteenth. The mission of the new district will be to enhance the many downtown arts and educational institutions, galleries, parks, public art, and restaurants that contribute to the city’s cultural legacy and inclusive economic development. Photo credit: City of Newark Facebook

Harriet Tubman monument replacing Christopher Columbus statue in Newark reignites racial tug of war around city’s history

Two communities clash between the statues of a brutal colonizer and a revered freedom-fighter.

The difference between Christopher Columbus and Harriet Tubman is stark. One is an Italian explorer who colonized Native people, while the other is a freedom fighter who led enslaved Blacks to freedom. Now, the contrasts between these two historical figures have been brought into full view in Newark, New Jersey with the replacement of a statue in the likeness of Columbus for a Tubman memorial. 

By the middle of 2020 when a global pandemic made the world stand still, the U.S. boiled in political and social upheaval. In the midst of the chaos,  Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced that a Harriet Tubman monument would replace a statue of Christopher Columbus. Along with the switch, Mayor Baraka said the greenspace, named after the country’s first president, George Washington, would be renamed Harriet Tubman Square.

For decades, the Columbus statue sat in the city’s Washington Park, a gift from Italian donors honoring their legacy’s connection to the mythic patriarchal founder of America, and the false narrative of the Italian explorer’s exploits. From historians to activists, many have dismantled Columbus’ hero status. Indigenous communities have called out his well-documented acts of brutality against Native nations, and the dishonored merchant marine is still held in high esteem amongst the descendants of Italian immigrants. 

While Columbus Day remains a prominent American holiday, Newark’s city administrators decided it was time to dismantle a representation of America’s sordid past. 

Sometime in the middle of the night in June 2020, the statue was unceremoniously removed. As it turns out, Newark was just one city across the country that took down Columbus sculptures. In New Jersey, cities such as Trenton, Camden and West Orange also decommissioned monuments.

Around the same time the statue came down, the city launched a call for artists to submit proposals to design the Tubman memorial. Months later, Montclair, New Jersey based-artist and designer Nina Cooke John’s proposal was selected in a lengthy process. Mayor Baraka expressed that “It is only fitting that we memorialize Tubman’s heroic efforts leading enslaved Africans to freedom via the Underground Railroad.”

To bolster plans, the Harriet memorial became a project under the Mellon Foundation’s Presidential Initiatives, a campaign committed to addressing historical inequities by funding collaborative enterprises in humanities, the arts, and higher education. As well, Audible, a corporation headquartered in Newark, signed on as a major contributor to the city’s plans by offering an audio component to the design.

“By creating an immersive audio experience alongside this new monument, Audible celebrates the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman and amplifies Newark’s own history with the Underground Railroad and free Black communities,” detailed Aisha Glover, Vice President of Urban Innovation at Audible. Before Glover’s position, she led The Newark Alliance, and prior to that, the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, both city-based nonprofits addressing the economic infrastructure.

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Goerge Washington Monument still stands in the greenspace formerly known as Washington Park. Photo credit: Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

The decision to install the monument and rename Washington Park after the African American revolutionary came shortly after a huge push back received from parents and national press when the New Jersey Randolph Township Board of Education decided to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. With tensions boiling over, the Randolph Township Board of Education ruling swiftly resulted in protests. 

“In your attempt to be woke, you’ve waken up the entire community of Randolph… We draw the line in the sand. You have overreached. Enough is enough of this anti-Columbus movement,” said Ralph Contini of Unico National. With this most recent change, more protests are likely coming down the pike.

Regardless of the growing outrage heard in townships like Randolph, plans to erect the Tubman memorial seemed to move forward until it was revealed by the real estate digital news source, Jersey Digs, that the all-white New Jersey Historical society temporarily denied the proposal. Because the land is a national landmark, it must receive state approval.

“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.],” said Marilou Ehrler, historical architect for the National Park Service.

Flipping the concept of inclusion, which historically meant for Black, Latino, Asian and Native peoples to have access in predominantly white spaces, the critics of the City of Newark’s plains claimed that they excluded Italian-Americans from the metropolis’ history.

Elizabeth Del Tufo, the founder of Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission argued that the Harriet Tubman statue should be placed somewhere else in the city like the newly constructed Mulberry Commons park located behind the Prudential Center sports arena. The problem is the park sits in a gentrified location that most residents rarely access. 

Del Tufo surmised that Newark’s plans were a “disaster” that caused “chaos.” The longtime Newark resident and historial with Italian ties has attempted to register Washington Park as a national historical monument. As well, Del Tufo once defended maintaining Newark statues created by Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mt. Rushmore with a documented racist with ties to white supremacist organizations.

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Veritably, many Native nations have long argued that observing Columbus ignores their rich history and culture for a figure who terrorized them. 

Multi-indigenous, entrepreneur, artist, and author, Brina Aldredge also known as Safiuchi told Ark Republic,  “He enslaved thousands of Natives. I mean his own brother turned his back on him and I just seriously want people to think. Do you really think that this man deserves a statue?  Do you really think he deserves the credit?”

Aldredge continued. “If it’s taken this far, then we might as well change the name of America.” America was named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. “So it’s just like if we’re going to go through this we might as well go all the way,” she concluded. 

As the more accurate story goes about Columbus’ voyage, he docked in what is present-day Bahamas. In exchange for showing foreign settlers the utmost hospitality, Natives were repaid with genocide. Columbus wrote in his diary, and in correspondences, about converting Indigenous people to Christianity, yet in his own life, he did not exemplify the ideals of Jesus Christ. Without regard for the Christian commandments, thou shalt not kill and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, he justified barbaric treatment as a part of colonizing the land, which included the extermination of Native people. 

Fast forward to the present day, a number of Italian Americans similarly turn a blind eye to the harmful deeds of Columbus. Rather, they narrowly  acknowledge that his actions financed the economic development of Europe and set the stage for settlers in America. 

The disillusionment of Columbus’ conquest systematically became part of the educational curriculum in the United States. Teaching the first lie, that Columbus discovered America, instills in Caucasian students that they’re supreme according to Rachelle Louis-Jacques, Bank of America Senior Fraud Analyst of Fraud Prevention & Detection.

“It’s hard to change people who are stuck in their ways, which is why it is so important to expand the minds of the youth,” Louis-Jaques told Ark Republic. “Not just taking the time to speak about Black History in February but to stop teaching that Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

Conversely, the white residents of Randolph claim the Tubman memorial is not inclusive of their rich Italian heritage. Those mostly southern Italians who emigrated to the U.S. from the 1880s to the 1920s, left behind poverty and unemployment. In Newark, the mass immigration resulted in the city’s neighborhood corridor, Seventh Avenue, becoming one of the largest Italian settlements outside of New York City. There, they created Little Italy in the old First Ward district. At its height, Little Italy bustled with Italian specialty shops, restaurants and culture.

Oddly enough, a housing project named after the very explorer celebrated by many Italians, Christopher Columbus, replaced the First Ward in 1953. Along with it went markets, butchers, mom-and-pop candy shops, and pastry stores. Then in 1967, ​​the beating and arrest of John Smith, an African American taxi driver by police, led to a five-day riot leaving 26 dead and 200 injured, causing a mass exodus of 100,000 of the city’s white residents. 

Although American whites were already leaving the urban landscape for the suburbs, the Newark civil unrest ushered in an urgency. Yet and still, the city serves as an important site for Italian Americans, hence the multiple mafia movies and the highly popular HBO series, The Sopranos, that take place in-and-around the de-industrialized city.

Understandably, Italian Americans feel some type of way when they see the monuments that depict their history vanish before their eyes. The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue stings because it symbolizes the disappearance of their contributions to Newark.

Black and American Indian professional guitarist Abdul Zuhri, popularly known as D-Noted Band Leader, told Ark Republic, “They didn’t need to tear his [statue] down to put hers up. They need to just put her [statue] up.”

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Attendees of Washington Park renaming ceremony included designer Nina Cooke John (far right). Photo credit: City of Newark Facebook page

As the narrative of Columbus settled in the American imagination, the facts about his arrival became more apparent. One tidbit later discovered about the voyager was that he first landed in the Bahamas on October 11, which is now celebrated as Columbus Day. The Bahamanian islands were home to as many as 80,000 people. Ten years later, most of the original peoples died of diseases or were taken away and enslaved in Spanish colonies across the New World.

“He never even set foot in America. [Italian Americans and whites] could be proud, but just tell the truth. There’s nothing wrong with the truth. They’re scared to tell their kids because they don’t want to seem like their race would do that but there’s good and bad in every race,” Dulie continued.

Still, it is no secret that Columbus is highly revered in history books. Ohio’s capital was named after him and he is honored yearly with a national holiday. But alas, the truth about him has gradually erupted to the surface. With the removal of the historical figure’s statue, it is the continuance of America’s birth pains in an arduous journey of a racially divided country. 

If there was ever an alternative for another monument, the Native American and African American Artist Safiuchi suggested creating a monument in the image of Chief Massasoit. According to the multi-heritage artist, the Chief took pity on English settlers when they arrived. As such, he taught them how to plant corn, showed them where to fish, and essentially helped them to survive.

“I think he would be a really good fit and I also feel like from an artistic point of view, it would be very interesting to see a Native American grabbing the hand of Harriet Tubman and saying welcome to America. I think that would be very touching,” said Safiuchi.

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This past Juneteenth, the city officially renamed Washington Park to Harriet Tubman Square. It was also announced that the contentious site would be the Newark Arts and Education District. “This is a bright day in the history of Newark, New Jersey, as we continue to recognize the true heroes of America, and tell the story of America through the experiences of African Americans and other oppressed people,” said Essex County Board of Commissioners President Wayne L. Richardson. “It is only right and fitting that the City of Newark, where the population is approximately 50 percent Black or African American, designate this space, in the heart of the city, to honor the most renowned woman freedom fighter . . . who was born enslaved, but refused to be a slave, and who put God and humanity before her own personal safety.”

Though a major win for the Baraka Administration, it leaves a division of histories palpable. Del Tufo said the Mayor Baraka has an “obsession with [George] Washington as a slaveholder.” 

In August, New Jersey’s Elizabeth Dragon, the state’s Assistant Commissioner of Community and Economic Revitalization at New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, reinstalled plans to move forward to erect the monument. Dragon argued that bringing the statue back would “undermine the City’s stated goals to foster a more inclusive Park setting.” 

As statues fall and others go up, the question remains: “What does inclusion look like?” For Del Tufo it is those who are in political power, much like her Italian ancestors who once walked freely in downtown Newark while African Americans had to have a pass until a 1959 ordinance removed the ban.

By the year 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that whites will make up a minority in the country. As individuals who were formerly noted as minority steadily become the majority, the voices of those who unquestionably consider Harriet Tubman a hero are becoming more and more audible. Eventually, the demographic shift will reflect the struggle to rewrite the revisionist past of the United States.

Kaia Shivers contributed to this article.

Journalist established in 2001, inspired by transformative leads.

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