On Monday, city officials approved designs for a monument to Shirley Chisholm, who, in 1968, was elected the first Black woman to serve in Congress, representing a district that encompassed her childhood neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. A national symbol of empowerment for women and people of color, Chisholm was also the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Public Design Commission, which has authority over the city’s permanent art collection, unanimously approved the 32-foot-tall, yellow and green sculpture of the congresswoman, a slightly scaled-back version of the original design. It will rise near the southeast entrance of Prospect Park. The artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan B. Jeyifous presented their initial concept more than four years ago. The Department of Cultural Affairs has called it the first permanent public artwork in Brooklyn dedicated to a woman in history.
Chisholm died at age 80, in 2005. Her New York Times obituary recalled her as an “outspoken, steely educator-turned-politician who shattered racial and gender barriers.” In 2019, the Chisholm monument was proposed as the headliner of She Built NYC, an ambitious program created by the de Blasio administration — led by the former first lady, Chirlane McCray — to diversify the city’s sculptures with a commitment of up to $10 million over four years. At the time, there were only five public artworks in the city devoted to women.
But the program never lived up to its promise. The Chisholm monument, slated for completion by the end of 2020, was delayed by the pandemic and, two years later, the beginning of a new mayoral administration under Eric Adams. Commitments to memorialize additional women, including Billie Holiday, Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Katherine Walker, and the transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, have also stalled on the city’s agenda without firm plans or attached designers.
“This administration is committed to working to tell a more complete story surrounding the trailblazing women who have shaped our city, and we are ready to get more of these projects back underway,” said Laurie Cumbo, New York City’s current Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.
Over the last four years, Williams and Jeyifous have scaled back their original proposal to satisfy city officials and comply with accessibility laws. The steel sculpture is now eight feet smaller; fencing around its base and sunken elements like a ramp have also been removed.
In their presentation Monday to the Public Design Commission, the artists said the monument — which also includes images of plants from Barbados, where she spent ages five through nine — would symbolize how Chisholm disrupted the perception of who belongs to the country’s democratic institutions and “ left the door open” to future generations of women.
“Depending upon your vantage point and approach to the Ocean Avenue entrance of Prospect Park, you can see Ms. Chisholm’s silhouette is inextricably intertwined with the iconic dome of the US Capitol building,” they said in a statement. “This trailblazing woman was not diminutive and this monument reflects how Chisholm’s collaborative ideals were larger than herself.”
Some critics have objected to the Chisholm monument’s placement outside of her original district further north in Brooklyn, but others have pointed out that she was a champion of the entire borough. In 1972, she announced her presidential bid for the Democratic ticket, becoming the first Black woman to seek that nomination from either major political party. Senator George McGovern from South Dakota would ultimately win the nomination but lose to President Richard Nixon in the election.
Chisholm’s campaign slogan when she ran for president was “unbought and unbossed.”
Before the hearing, some historians celebrated the city’s approval of the monument while seeking more answers on how officials would continue to fund maintenance of the sculpture. Across the city, memorials are crumbling after decades of neglect with conservation bills racking up millions of dollars. On the side of the park opposite where the Chisholm statue will go, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch is currently wrapped in scaffolding and will undergo a $6 million face-lift.
“They have to build these things to stand up to the ages,” said Michele H. Bogart, an art historian specializing in the city’s public works.
But overall, Bogart was happy to see Chisholm honored. “If there were people concerned about there not being any memorials to women, this is an attempt to compensate,” she said. “The silhouette of her hairdo will echo the treetops in the park.”
During the public hearing, officials criticized the monument as “beautiful,” and a potential meeting spot for political activists. “This is the most exciting project that I have seen since I have been a commissioner,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a former member of the New York City Council, who joined the Public Design Commission in December.
He said that the sculpture would become the backdrop for political rallies and marches, adding, “I would imagine Shirley Chisholm would love that idea.”