Home CultureBlack-Owned Harriet Tubman Gets Memorialized by New Mural in JC’s Berry Lane Park

Harriet Tubman Gets Memorialized by New Mural in JC’s Berry Lane Park

by Sarah Griesbach
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We are lucky to live in a county imbued with history. For those who don’t know, Jersey City was actually the last official stop on the Underground Railroad — meaning our area has deep ties to Harriet Tubman. Just recently, a new mural debuted in Berry Lane Park to honor and celebrate Harriet Tubman, painted by Jersey City artist Floyd Simmons. There is a lot of excitement around this new mural as well as the healing garden in Jersey City’s beautiful Berry Lane Park, both made to mark the bicentennial celebration of Harriet Tubman’s birth. We took a visit to the recent ribbon cutting + festival, held on October 22nd, to celebrate Harriet’s 200th birthday. Read on to learn more about Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday and the way Jersey City is memorializing her.

A Birthday Party in a City Park

Berry Lane Park is among the best Hudson County parks for all kinds of activities. The basketball and tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields, skate park, and playgrounds are seriously top-notch. The land that comprises this sparkling city park was, not too long ago, contaminated with heavy metals, petroleum, and hexavalent chromium. Through funding obtained from federal, state, county, and local agencies, remediation of the park began in July of 2012. Today, Berry Lane Park is typically hopping with crowds seeking fitness and fun. 

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The park is also designed to be a place for contemplation and enlightenment. There is work underway to name the outdoor amphitheater area after Harriet Tubman, and that plan seems like a no-brainer since the park now boasts a freshly painted mural depicting scenes in the life of the preeminent leader of the Underground Railroad. The mural was conceived of and executed by Jersey City artist Floyd Simmons. It is remarkable, stretching across six massive concrete silos, once used to store coal for the former rail yard at that site. 

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Floyd describes this meaningful mural project as holding an intensity of purpose for him that he imagines he would not have been ready for when he was a younger man. He found his deep dive into the life of this iconic Black Abolitionist as being something “like hearing a song again that I enjoyed as a child but that just resonates so much more now.”

It could not have been a more beautiful day for the ribbon cutting event and festival celebrating the life of the phenomenal Harriet Tubman on October 22nd. Music was playing and the sun was shining as city leaders cut the ceremonial ribbon marking the significance of the mural and the spot where it stands. 

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Jersey City’s Lafayette neighborhood community came out in full-force with the spirited Dickinson High School cheerleaders, Lincoln High School’s knock-your-socks-off Strutters and drum-line, VFW Post 2297 veteran flag bearers, local Black-owned business venders, JC City Council leaders, and rap artists performing The Conscious 7. It’s hard to imagine a better birthday party.

A Thickly Rich History

This bicentennial celebration of Harriet’s birth brought history to life through the heartrending embodiment of her in Dr. Daisy Century’s one-woman enactment of scenes from her life. In addition, she was celebrated with the riveting play, Walk by the Way of the Moon, performed by Jersey City’s Speranza Theatre. The story they enacted began in December 1850, when Harriet guided her sister and her two children to the North and their freedom. Within the next decade, she made 19 trips North with ~300 people to escape enslavers. None of those she brought to freedom were ever recaptured.

The actors who perform for Speranza Theatre Company in regional parks and public buildings adeptly depict dangers that would have been encountered by Black men, women, and children who traveled in darkness for 10 to 20 miles a night, following the map laid out by the stars above. Along that route, those brave freedom-seekers often had need for medical care. It is known that Harriet used her knowledge of medicinal plants in her work as a guide along the Underground Railroad just as she did as a Civil War spy. The native New Jersey plants she would have used and instructed others to use can now be found in the Harriet Tubman Healing Garden at Berry Lane Park.

Building on the Richness of the Past

New Jersey was the last slave state of the North, only abolishing the heinous practice fully in 1866. Since it bordered New York which, in 1827, became the first state to pass a law for the total abolition of legal slavery, Harriet often brought the freedom seekers she led through our state. Jersey City, described as the last stop on the Underground Railroad, was the final destination before freedom for most of her charges. 

Jersey City’s Harsimus was home to a network of safe houses in churches, businesses, basements, and barns. Honoring her here makes sense. Because she funded many of her Underground Railroad voyages by working as a domestic laborer and cook in Cape May, a Harriet Tubman Museum honors her there. The Hudson County region has been slow to recognize the storied physical locations that served as nodes along the Underground Railroad, but interest in formal recognition of that history is vocal and high.

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“Her heroic acts mean so much to us today,” Councilperson Frank Gilmore told the celebrants at the bicentennial birthday event. The significance of Harriet’s legacy in Jersey City is described as inspirational in contemporary work against the worst kinds of adversity. Her story of fearlessness and devotion to her community continues to embolden and galvanize new generations. It was hard work and love of community that transformed Berry Lane Park into the superb city spot it is now. Friends of Berry Lane Park president Jerome Choice is excited about the opportunities their organization are able to offer to creative locals who are busy designing the public meeting spaces interwoven into this significant Jersey City recreational center.

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