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Harriet Tubman monument replacing a Christopher Columbus statue in Newark is "poetic," mayor says

Symbolic Justice
Symbolic Justice 25:37

Almost a year ago, the city of Newark removed a Christopher Columbus statue amid the national reckoning spurred by the death of George Floyd. The city's mayor, Ras Baraka, recently revealed the design of the Harriet Tubman monument that will replace it. 

"I think it's a little better than what we envisioned," he told CBS News in an interview on Friday. "I think that it's going to turn out to be something great."

Baraka said having Tubman take over Columbus' old spot in Washington Park was "poetic." As the nation continues to weigh the future of controversial statues, he said the monument felt like an opportunity to embrace history and Tubman's roots in the Garden State. 

"Harriet Tubman actually stepped foot here in this property, Christopher Columbus did not," Baraka said. "So, it seems more appropriate to have a statue of Harriet Tubman and talk about the abolitionists' work that went on that most people in New Jersey don't even know... fighting against a system that was trying to allow slavery in this state." 

New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery. In 1804, the state passed a law to gradually abolish it — but the last slaves in the state were not freed until after the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, according to the state's historical commission. After Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, the legendary abolitionist helped free dozens of slaves through the Underground Railroad, which traveled through Newark. New Jersey was the last stop before New York.

Harriet Tubman's road to freedom 08:27

Following a months-long contest, the city chose artist Nina Cooke John to design the artwork. The circular monument named "Shadow of a Face" features a ceramic-based mosaic of Tubman's face as well as text marking the history of the Underground Railroad and the safe houses throughout New Jersey. The piece will debut in the summer of 2022. 

"As a woman, a Black woman, and mother of three girls, I am delighted to bring my memorial for Harriet Tubman to life in Newark," John said in a news release. "My design creates a welcoming space for people to connect with Tubman as well as interact and reflect on their own liberation from whatever weight they might be carrying. This is a monument for the community and by the community."

01-nina-cooke-john-shadow-of-a-face.jpg
This illustration shows how the monument to Harriet Tubman will look.  Nina Cooke John

Last week's announcement of the monument's design comes more than a year after protests against racial injustice and police brutality erupted in the U.S. and worldwide, prompting reflection on the treatment of people of color and an increase in calls to remove statues deemed racist. 

Newark has made multiple changes since the protests began. In 2020, city police did not fire a single shot while on duty. Last month, Baraka launched a guaranteed basic income program aimed at helping struggling residents, and just last week, the city unveiled a 700-pound bronze George Floyd statue in front of city hall. 

But despite the progress that both Newark and the country as a whole has made, Baraka said there's still much more work to be done. 

"We obviously have to deal with housing inequity, the wealth gap, access to education and opportunity," he said. "We have to do things in that area, and still significant police reform, statewide police reform, local police reform, we still are struggling around those issues."

"The work doesn't stop, right?" he added. "People tend to look at these things as the ceiling, so they get upset. But it's just the floor. And it's just laying the groundwork for something bigger that other people have to come behind and do."

Should Columbus statues come down? 04:29
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