Montclairian Nina Cooke Jones unveils monument to Harriet Tubman
When Newark announced a competition to design a monument recognizing Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and their historical significance to Newark, the Montclair architect and artist Nina Cooke John decided it was not for her.
“Having recently expanded my practice into public art, I worked primarily in abstraction,” she said Saturday, March 11, at the Newark Museum of Art. “And I thought, you know, they probably want relatively traditional statues sitting in the square, and then people can walk around and learn about Harriet Tubman.
“And then a friend of mine sent it to me again and said, ‘You know, we're rethinking what monuments are, and I think you should hang your hat into the ring.’”
So on Thursday, March 9, when the Harriet Tubman Monument was unveiled in the former Washington Park – now renamed Harriet Tubman Square – Cooke John was front and center as the artist whose vision was transformed into a ribbon-like structure of the woman who saved many from slavery.
“‘Shadow of a Face’ celebrates both the legacy of Harriet Tubman and the lives of the people living in Newark today – connecting their story to Tubman’s story through a common bond of seekers of liberty in the past and in the present,” Cooke John said at the unveiling.
“Her heroism is recognized, and space is claimed for her story in this historic park, while her humanity is made accessible so that we can all be empowered by her deeds both great and small.”
The 25-foot-tall representation of Tubman is made of steel that extends over a walkway where visitors can enter the monument. Timelines of Tubman’s life and Newark’s abolitionist history are displayed on a circular wall, as an audio narration by Newark native Queen Latifah plays overhead. It also includes a mosaic of Tubman’s face.
The monument’s title was inspired by Robert Hayden’s poem “Runagate Runagate,” which describes enslaved people seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad.
“Shadow of a Face” replaces a statue of Christopher Columbus that Mayor Ras Baraka had removed in the summer of 2020 as protests for racial justice were unfolding in the city, as they were across the country. Cooke John acknowledged that moment of history by including the footprint of the pedestal for the Columbus statue in the new work.
The new monument recognizes Tubman, who escaped from slavery, then rescued about 70 enslaved people through the network of clandestine routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. The Old First Presbyterian Church in Newark is said to have been part of the Underground Railroad.
“In a time when so many cities are choosing to topple statues that limit the scope of their people’s story, we have chosen to erect a monument that spurs us into our future story of exemplary strength and solidity,” Baraka said at the ceremony.
“In a country where the overwhelming majority of monuments are testaments to white males, Newark has chosen to erect a monument to a Black woman who was barely 5 feet tall, but had the visage and power of a giant.
“We have created a focal point in the heart of our city that expresses our participation in an ongoing living history of a people who have grappled through many conflicts to steadily lead our nation in its progress toward racial equality. Harriet Tubman Square and its interactive centerpiece sculpture, ‘Shadow of a Face,’ represent our past, present, and future.”
Among the speakers was Michele Jones Galvin, a descendant of Tubman.
“Let’s forever remember Harriet Tubman for her compassion, courage, bravery, service to others, and her commitment to faith, family, fortitude and freedom,” said Galvin, adding that the monument will memorialize Tubman’s “heroism, will inspire future generations to take action when they see injustice, and will instill the value of service to the most vulnerable in our society.”
Other Montclairians also had significant roles in the project, including Audible founder Don Katz and Charlie Spademan, the artist and blacksmith who fabricated the towering representation of Tubman for the monument.
Audible played a major part in the financing of the project and provided audio narration by Queen Latifah for people visiting the monument.
“I talked to Nina Cooke John the other day,” Katz said at the unveiling. “It was such a pleasure to hear her describe her vision and purpose, as she designed the monument and helped shepherd it through fabrication. I heard that each of the artists and artisans building their respective parts of the structure said they had never been more challenged to create at this level.”
Part of the monument includes the voices of Newark residents telling their own stories.
“Harriet Tubman could only live in the world of real American storytelling because she could not read or write,” Katz said. “She was also someone who would not accept the world as it was. She followed her vision of what ought to be across a rich life full of experiences well beyond shepherding her family and others to freedom.”
Referring to Cooke John, Spademan said on his Instagram page: “She has created a space that is profoundly moving by using a variety of elements: spoken word and sound, text, as well as the unique physical space. I am most flattered that she asked me to participate in this project along with dozens of other talented people in bringing her vision to life.
“I have been working on this for well over a year, engineering and fabricating the central figure. It has been one of the most challenging things technically that I have ever done, certainly the most rewarding.”
On Saturday, the Newark Museum of Art had a daylong celebration of Harriet Tubman and the new monument.
Cooke John explained her vision for the project.
“Kate Larson's text ‘Bound for the Promised Land’ was really important for the research,” she said. “And she says that Harriet Tubman was driven by her desire to liberate her family and friends, guided by an unquestioning belief in God's protection, and confidence in the vast underground network she had come to know so well.”
“And this network, I knew and realized, was really an important part of making her successful in all the courageous deeds we have heard about. And these secret networks were built in the antebellum equivalent to public space: markets, horse races, and camp meetings.
“The enslaved journeyed miles to hear messages of hope, among biblical text that was different to those mediums that they heard at the churches of their masters.”
She said she envisioned “Shadow of a Face” as being a similar place of pilgrimage, where people from all over will come to congregate.
“They'll come to learn about Harriet Tubman and to connect with her,” Cooke John said. “And in the process, they will connect with themselves and get one step closer to their own liberation from whatever weight they might be carrying.
“When they come, they will find a place that is welcoming, where they can sit and stay, connect and see themselves represented in the monument.”
To enhance the sense of public participation and networking, she included a section of tiles created by people who attended a number of workshops held in museums, libraries and schools. Individuals etched what they wanted into the tiles, bringing many perspectives to the monument.
The same spirit was brought to the audio stories that individuals tell. “This is one more tool in promoting connection to the physical space of the monument,” she said.
Bringing voices of the community into public monuments is a growing trend, said Nicholas Legeros, a sculptor based in Minneapolis, adding that Cooke John accomplished that in “Shadow of a Face.”
“Communities are taking greater ownership of what their public art is like, both from the historic context as well as a desire to make the underrepresented represented,” Legeros said. “I think this does a very good job of what it’s trying to do.”
New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy said at the unveiling that nothing can be gained by hiding from our history.
“There is nothing patriotic in looking away from our nation’s original sin,” Murphy said. “On the contrary, it is only through facing the truth together that we can find a way forward. And there is always a way forward.
“This statue reminds us of that truth – as does the partnership between the city of Newark and Audible in sharing the story of Harriet Tubman’s life and work and Newark’s role in Black liberation.”