Is the City of Newark big enough for Washington, Columbus and Tubman, three great giants of history?
We are about to find out.
The New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office has sent back a plan to honor famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a plan that had removed a Columbus Memorial in the city’s historic Washington Park.
Crafted by Italian artisans more than a century ago, the Columbus Memorial disappeared in 2020. Last month, Newark detached George Washington’s name from the park. The space is renamed Harriet Tubman Square.
A local news outlet recently reported that the Historic Preservation Office voted unanimously to reject Newark’s plan and urged the city administration to start over. Historic Preservation Officer Flavia Alaya commented that Newark’s plan banning Washington and the Italian-born Columbus makes that public space “less inclusive.”
Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman freed herself and charted the underground railroad of the mid 19th century. Her work led to the freedom of dozens of slaves. Harriet Tubmam richly deserves to be recognized as the great American she is. But not at the price of divisively wiping away the memory of Washington and Columbus.
Community activists have suggested at least two sites with historic roots, worthy venues for a Tubman memorial. One leader has suggested a site near the Newark Museum of Art and known to be a stop on the underground railroad. The site “would definitely have an actual connection to history and be a fitting honor to Harriet Tubman without the potential for cutting century-old trees and without the ulterior motives of corporate and political interests,” the activist wrote.
Liz Del Tufo, founder and president of Newark Landmarks, has suggested the city’s new 22-acre downtown park Mulberry Commons. She has objected to the entire planning process as exclusionary and opaque. “Now I understand why,” she said. “The plan is a disaster, causing chaos and accomplishing nothing.”
The decision of the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office is an opportunity for a fresh start. The City of Newark can begin a conversation, commit to a transparent process, build trust and find common ground to ensure that all groups are properly respected. Then, with the Washington name restored and the Columbus memorial returned, everyone will more fully appreciate the new memorial to the life, the valor and the sacrifice of Harriet Tubman.
Columbus Heritage Coalition