A Proposed Monument to Shirley Chisholm, the First Black Woman Elected to Congress, Has Finally Been Approved in New York

Announced in 2018, the planned statue was delayed by the pandemic and a change in mayoral administrations. 

A rendering of the proposed monument to Shirley Chisholm by Olalekan Jeyifous and Amanda Williams. Courtesy of the artists.

More than four years after it was proposed, a planned public monument honoring the late congresswoman Shirley Chisholm has been given the green light for installation in New York. 

Conceived by artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan B. Jeyifous, the 32-foot-tall sculpture depicts Chisholm’s face in yellow and green latticework. The design was unanimously approved by the New York Public Design Commission, the agency that oversees the city’s public art collection, in a meeting on July 17, according to the New York Times. It’s now set to be installed near the southeast entrance of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. 

A symbol of strength for women and people of color, Chisholm became the first Black woman to serve in Congress in 1968. Four years later, she added another feat to her list: she became the first Black woman to run for president.  

A monument to Chisholm has been in the works for years. Announced in 2018, it was among the first projects promised by She Built NYC, an initiative founded by the Department of Cultural Affairs to address the city’s lack of public monuments honoring women. At the time, only five New York statues depicted real-life women. By comparison, nearly 150 memorialized men.  

“Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s legacy of leadership and activism has paved the way for thousands of women to seek public office,” said New York’s former first lady Chirlane McCray, who led She Built NYC, when the memorial plan was revealed in 2018. “She is exactly the kind of New York woman whose contributions should be honored with representation in our public spaces.” 

Williams and Jeyifous’s design, submitted through an open call, was chosen in 2019. In silhouette, the sculpture recalls the dome of U.S. Capitol building. It also features inlaid shapes of plants native to Barbados, where Chisholm lived briefly as a child. 

“Our project celebrates Shirley Chisholm’s legacy as a civil servant who ‘left the door open’ to make room for others to follow in her path toward equity and a place in our country’s political landscape,” Williams and Jeyifous said of their proposal. “We have designed a monument in which her iconic visage can be immediately recognizable while also equally portraying the power, beauty, and dimensionality of her contributions to our democracy.” 

The monument was originally slated for completion in 2020, but the pandemic, followed by a change in mayoral administrations, delayed the project and others like it, including planned monuments to civil rights icon Elizabeth Jennings Graham, singer Billie Holiday, and the transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Some wondered if these statues would be erected at all.  

Laurie Cumbo, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under current Mayor Eric Adams, quelled those fears. “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,” she told the New York Times.

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