NEWARK, NJ — Mayor Ras Baraka revealed Wednesday that Newark will commission a statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman to replace one of Christopher Columbus it removed over the summer in Washington Park, which will be renamed Tubman Square.
Just in time for Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12, the announcement comes several months following the overnight removal of the Columbus statue in June, which was met with applause from community members. Baraka said during his sixth annual State of the City address at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center that the move is more than window dressing.
“Newark played an integral role in the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom led her to our city many times in that very area in a state that was one of the last to acknowledge freedom,” Baraka said.
New Jersey historian Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps told NJSpotlight that the First Presbyterian Church on Broad Street was one of Tubman’s stops along the Underground Railroad. The church’s network of secret passageways are still accessible today.
In a statement released following the June 25 Columbus dismounting, which came at the height of global protests against racism, Baraka reasoned the city was both taking a stand against symbols of white supremacy and protecting anyone who might try to take it down themselves.
“In keeping with the movement to remove symbols of oppression and white supremacy, we have decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Washington Park,” the mayor said. “We took it down with City work crews in a safe and orderly manner, to avoid the potential danger of people taking it upon themselves to topple it.”
The statue of the 15th-century explorer was dedicated in 1927 as a gift from Newark’s Italian-American community, which took offense to Baraka’s decision to banish the monument to city storage. The dedication predates demographic shifts and historians’ discoveries of documents that detail Columbus’ iron rule over the New World, which included savage cruelty toward and enslavement of the Native American population.
Salvatore Benvenuti, executive director for UNICO National, an Essex County-based Italian-American cultural and service organization, told TAPinto Newark that he wasn’t entirely convinced of revised historical records and lambasted Baraka for not allowing Italian-Americans to weigh in on the decision.
In this country, we do have due process, and in most cities where action is being recommended or considered to take down a statue, it’s usually considered in an open forum, not in the middle of the night like a thief,” Benvenuti said in June.
The Italian community in Newark has largely given way to a mostly Black and Latinx population, who overwhelmingly welcomed the removal of a figure who many have come to understand as a symbol of slavery. President George Washington, among other revolutionary and pre-Civil War leaders, has also drawn criticism for owning slaves.
In 2017, Baraka declared the second Monday in October would be celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day in Newark, a move that has grown in popularity through the state and country as citizens come to understand Columbus' full history.
City council also passed the mayor’s ordinance outlawing white supremacist activity in June, declaring Newark a hate-free zone.
“For years we have allowed other people to define us, to be self-appointed narrators of our lives. Like the writers of the old westerns who always concluded the story with the Indigenous people losing,” Baraka added on Wednesday. “I am happy today that we are telling our own story, we are writing our own history, and in this version we win.”