Newark Honors Harriet Tubman

Downtown Park to be Renamed and New Monument Constructed

Linda Caldwell Epps is President & CEO of 1804 Consultants

Thankfully and miraculously, the American public has entered another stage of recognition and ownership of its sin of promoting and celebrating Anglo capitalism at the expense of its Black and brown citizens. After the slaying of nine people in an historic Black church prompted permanent removal of the confederate flag in Charleston, SC, a chain of flag and monument removals throughout the country took place, increasing our attention to the sins of racism.

The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Newark, New Jersey’s Washington Park took place in June, 2020. A monument to honor Ms. Harriet Tubman designed by architect Nina Cooke John, along with stations within the park recognizing the efforts of disenfranchised citizens to free themselves from the historical dominance of the isms are part of the rededication of the park. Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820 or 1821, Harriet Tubman became an abolitionist conductor on the Underground Railroad; a Civil War soldier, nurse, spy, and scout; and a social reformer who holds iconic status.

Her birth name was Araminta, but perhaps changing her name to Harriet was her first step towards taking her own freedom. Brave, bold, defiant, intelligent, and articulate, Ms. Tubman provided us with a perfect example of what is possible in a climate of national discord, racism, classism, and chauvinism—issues that still plague our society in 2022. In 1849, Ms. Tubman made her escape to Philadelphia. She returned to Maryland the next year to free her sister and her sister’s family and over the next 12 years, returned to the South some 18 or 19 times bringing more than 300 people out of slavery.

During her early years as a freedom fighter, she took up residence in Cape May, NJ where she worked as a maid to pay for her freedom trips. Given NJ’s important and active participation in the Underground Railroad and the activism of abolitionists in Newark with its proximity to NYC, it is likely that Ms. Tubman did visit Newark. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act necessitated she change her residence farther north to upstate New York and Canada—firmer abolitionist territory.

When not rescuing people from slavery, Ms. Tubman developed her oratorical skills and began speaking publicly at anti-slavery and eventually women’s rights meetings. With money she earned from her speaking engagements she purchased land in Auburn, NY and eventually rescued her parents and her brothers from slavery in Maryland. Remember, she did all of this while a fugitive with a bounty of $50,000 on her head—a huge sum of money for the mid-19th century.

She continued to lead expeditions out of the South right up to and during the Civil War. Never captured, during the war she served as a spy for northern military units. Known as the first woman in this country to actually lead a military raid, in July of 1863 she led troops on the Combahee River expedition, disrupting southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads and freeing more than 750 enslaved men and woman. This is the only military command in American history where a woman, Black or white, led the raid and under whose inspirationn it was originated.

After the war Ms. Tubman’s public life did not end. She continued to lecture and became a businesswoman, selling home-baked goods and root beer while advocating for education and job placement for those freed after the Civil War. She continued publicly speaking on women’s rights and women’s suffrage and in 1896, Tubman spoke at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization that still exists. She died of pneumonia at her home in Auburn, New York in 1913.

Free long before she took her physical freedom, her example of mental freedom might be the most important part of her legacy. Resistance to her situation began as a small thought with no possibility, but she began to free herself mentally little by little. Resistance to her physical condition overcame everything as her mental state morphed from that of an enslaved person to a person of free thought. We are born physically free but often succumb to the enslaving culture of self-doubt, jealousy, and oneupmanship. We all suffer from those less than moments. We are, according to the Constitution of the United States, all created equal, but not only do we sometimes think of ourselves as unworthy or unequal, we view others as unworthy or unequal.

Our thoughts, deeds, and actions determine the futures of our families. According to James Baldwin, “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Let’s applaud Newark and other cities for understanding our public spaces need to better reflect the cause of liberty for all. Let us all be diligent in assuring whatever tools we have in our possession, love and freedom go hand in hand.