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12 Mar, 2023 20:24

Monument to abolitionist replaces Columbus statue

A sculpture featuring Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman has been unveiled in the US
Monument to abolitionist replaces Columbus statue

A towering monument to black abolitionist Harriet Tubman was unveiled in downtown Newark, New Jersey on Thursday in newly-renamed Harriet Tubman Square. Titled ‘Shadow of a Face’, the sculpture replaces a statue of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, which was removed in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests. 

The two-part monument celebrates Tubman’s “compassion, courage, bravery, service to others, her patriotism, and her commitment to family, faith, fortitude, and freedom,” the former slave’s three-times great-niece Michele Jones Gavin said in a statement accompanying the piece’s unveiling.

Fronted by a gray stone wall with Tubman’s face roughly sculpted in relief, the monument includes an inner wall of steel panels engraved with information about her life, the Underground Railroad, civil rights activism in Newark, and black liberation, with an audio component featuring locals sharing their “stor[ies] of personal liberation.” Behind the stone piece rises a 25-foot wire outline of a woman with thick ropes trailing off behind the sculpture.

Nina Cooke John, the monument’s designer, said the design was meant to connect “current-day Newark stories” with that of the abolitionist heroine, whom she called “not very well known.” Born into slavery in the early 1800s in the slave state of Maryland, Tubman escaped her captivity but subsequently returned south on more than a dozen perilous trips in the decade before the Civil War to help others reach freedom. She became known as the 'conductor' of the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses and hidden trails that ferried runaway slaves north to freedom.  

The city of Newark removed the statue of Christopher Columbus from what was then known as Washington Park in the middle of the night in June 2020, supposedly to protect it from vandalism as rioters ostensibly incensed by the death in police custody of George Floyd toppled statues of white men from bygone eras across the nation. However, Mayor Ras Baraka later admitted the statue’s removal was part of a “movement to remove symbols of oppression and white supremacy,” outraging Italian-American groups that had already complained that despite gifting it to the city in 1927, they had no say in its removal. 

Tubman is also slated to replace former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, which would make her the first black person and first woman to appear on American paper currency (Supreme Court Justice Susan B. Anthony and Native American guide Sacagawea have both appeared on dollar coins).