Black History at NYC Parks:
Sculptures Honoring the African-American Experience
The permanent sculpture collection in the parks of New York City is a veritable outdoor sculpture museum, commemorating people, places, events, and themes of significance in the evolution of the city, nation, and the world. In honor of Black History Month, the selections below have been compiled as a sampling of those permanent sculptures, which represent African-American persons and themes; most are also by African-American artists.© City of New York
1. Duke Ellington Statue at Frawley Circle near Central Park, Manhattan
This monumental piece depicts the composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington standing beside a concert grand piano, supported by nine sculpted figures, known as caryatids. The sculpture is set within a multi-leveled semi-circular plaza at the gateway to Harlem – the community in which Ellington lived for much of his adult life and with which he is creatively associated.
2. Dr. Ronald E. McNair Monument at McNair Park, Brooklyn
This artwork depicts physicist and astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died aboard the Challenger space shuttle when it exploded in 1986. The bronze portrait bust is set within a pink granite pyramidal pedestal, flanked by bronze relief plaques representing the varied pursuits of Dr. McNair.
3. Foley Square Historical Medallions, African Burial Ground, Manhattan
This bronze medallion is one of five medallions that commemorate what Foley Square looked like at various points of New York history. This particular relief sculpture acknowledges the presence of the African Burial Ground, in which the remains of as many as 10,000 men, women, and children were interred between 1712 and 1794. Its central image consists of a skeleton and broken shackles.
4. Frederick Douglass Memorial at the Frederick Douglass Circle near Central Park, Manhattan
This monument honors the abolitionist, writer, orator, and publisher Frederick Douglass. Harlem-based artist Algernon Miller designed a complex colored paving pattern that alludes to traditional African American quilt designs. Additional features, including wrought-iron symbolic and decorative elements, a water wall, and inscribed historical details and quotations create a rich tableau representing the life of Douglass and the slaves’ passage to freedom. A central heroically-sized bronze sculpture, depicting a standing Douglass, was crafted by Hungarian-born artist Gabriel Koren.
5. Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison at Riverside Park, Manhattan
This sculpture honors author Ralph Ellison, who lived opposite this park. It consists of a bronze monolith through which is cut the silhouette of a striding man—a literal allusion to Ellison’s epic novel, Invisible Man. A quotation from the novel and biographical details relating to Ellison are inscribed in low-lying pink granite wall framing an oval landscape designed by Ken Smith.
6. Jackie Robinson at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center, Manhattan
This sculptural bust honors the athlete who in 1947 broke the “color barrier” in Major League Baseball, when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His courage helped to inspire generations of ballplayers and propel the integration of professional sports. The monument also includes two commemorative tablets that, along with the sculpture, are found in the dramatic entrance lobby of this W.P.A.-era facility.
7. Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese at MCU Park, Brooklyn
Inspired by the friendship of two Brooklyn Dodger baseball players who helped advance integration in the Major Leagues, this figurative sculpture depicting the two teammates was dedicated November 1, 2005 at the entrance of MCU Park, the home of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones. The artwork honors a sporting event with wider social significance, and is intended to serve as an inspiration to visitors, especially children.
8. Harlem Hybrid at Roosevelt Triangle, Manhattan
This 5,500-pound site-specific abstract piece assembles highly-polished welded bronze sections of irregular shapes and thickness into a montage that suggests a natural outcropping and also is inspired by the architecture and design of neighboring buildings.
9. Little Dances at the Louis Armstrong Community Center, Queens
This abstract sculpture honors jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, who lived nearby in a modest home from 1943 until his death in 1971. The bright-green tubular sculpture evokes a horn and transposes the musician’s lyrical expression in space. It is located in the entry court of a recreation and social services center also named for Armstrong.
10. Peter and Willie at Prospect Park, Brooklyn
This playful piece features the bronze figures of a boy reading a book with his dog on a contoured basalt boulder. The intimate sculpture was inspired by Peter’s Chair, one of a series of children’s books authored by Ezra Jack Keats, and was created by Brooklyn resident Otto Neals.
11. Reverend Benjamin Lowry at Lowry Triangle, Brooklyn
This portrait bust has a local context in that it honors the Reverend Benjamin James Lowry, the long-time pastor of Zion Baptist Church, located nearby at 523 Washington Avenue in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn.
12. Soul in Flight: A Memorial to Arthur Ashe at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens
This sculpture on the grounds of the United States Tennis Center commemorates tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe. Set on a landscaped mound, the heroic classical nude stretches his left arm upwards in a gesture that while taken from the tennis serve, is purely symbolic. The piece thus is not a literal representation of Ashe, but instead an allegory of grace, power and aspiration. This sculpture is framed by curved walls inscribed with biographical details, as well as an inspiration motto favored by Ashe: “From what we get, we make a living; What we give, however, makes a life.”
13. Swing Low: A Memorial to Harriet Tubman in Manhattan
This larger-than-life bronze sculpture depicts abolitionist organizer and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913). Born into slavery in Maryland around 1822, Tubman escaped in 1849 via the Underground Railroad, the network of places and people dedicated to helping slaves find their way to freedom in non-slaveholding communities. Settling first in Philadelphia, then Canada, Tubman spent ten years returning to Maryland at great personal risk, to guide scores of friends and family members to freedom.
14. Tomorrow’s Wind in Thomas Jefferson Park, Manhattan
This abstract welded steel piece featuring a polished disc and crescent-like shape are indicative of the sculptor’s large-scale public art pieces, which tend to feature immense shapes that conjure up images from the natural world. The disk was designed to be tilted so it can reflect sunlight as the sun moves across the sky during the day.
15. Tree of Hope at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Malls, Manhattan
This brightly colored painted steel sculpture is almost abstract. It commemorates the original “Tree of Hope,” a talisman to those who performed at the nearby Lafayette Theater, and also honors its champion, entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who saved a remnant of the original elm that performers once rubbed for good luck.
16. Triumph of the Human Spirit at Foley Square, Manhattan
Set at the center of a fountain, and rising nearly 50 feet into the air, this black granite abstract monument is derived from the antelope forms of Bambaran art. The horizontal boat-like feature that supports the sculpture alludes to the “Middle Passage” of the slave trade. The monument is built near the site of a Colonial-era African-American burial ground.