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Black women are mostly missing from Capitol art. This lawmaker has a suggestion

Rosa Parks is currently the only Black woman with a full-length statue

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., and Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson comment on the Shirley Chisholm portrait on Dec. 4, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., and Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson comment on the Shirley Chisholm portrait on Dec. 4, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rosa Parks sits alone among the hundreds of artworks dotting the Capitol. The civil rights icon is the only Black woman currently memorialized in a full-length statue.

Boosting representation is an “immediate need,” according to Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, who wants to see another trailblazer installed at the Capitol — Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress.

“She showed millions of Black children what was possible. She showed me what was possible. For this and countless other reasons, Congress should honor Chisholm’s life and living legacy,” Clarke said in a statement this week, after introducing a bill that would direct the Joint Committee on the Library to obtain a statue of Chisholm for placement in the building.

The New York Democrat has been down this road before. She worked with then-Sen. Kamala Harris during the last Congress on a similar push, but the legislation never made it to the floor.

With both chambers now controlled by Democrats, and after a summer of protests and activism across the country, there’s renewed energy to venerate some of the people of color who paved the way for others. Clarke believes the time is right to celebrate the woman who earned the nickname “Fighting Shirley.”

“Honoring Shirley Chisholm with a statue in the halls of the Capitol does more than memorialize her life. It proves to the millions of Black girls and women in this country that if they achieve, if they strive for greatness, if they better their country and this world, they too may be honored eternally in the United States Capitol,” said Clarke in the statement. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock introduced a companion bill in the Senate. 

Other lawmakers have floated bills in the past to award Chisholm a Congressional Gold Medal, though none have been successful. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Chisholm was elected to the House in 1968 to represent New York’s 12th District, which then encompassed some of the same area that Clarke represents today. She co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and in 1972 became the first Black woman and the first Caribbean American woman to seek the nomination for president from a major political party. 

She died on New Year’s Day of 2005 and was laid to rest in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. The vault is inscribed with her motto: “unbought and unbossed.”

Chisholm’s influence is still seen today by women in Congress. Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee cites her as a key inspiration, and Harris honored Chisholm when she launched her own presidential bid on nearly the same day 47 years later, with campaign materials that had similar colors and fonts.

The House art collection already includes a striking depiction of the former educator who said she had “no intention of just sitting quietly and observing,” in the form of a portrait painted by artist Kadir Nelson.

Chisholm stares right at the viewer with her back to the Capitol on a cloudless blue day. She’s wearing a blue patterned coat and a doubled-up string of pearls around her neck. Her arms are crossed and her right index finger is raised as if she’s making a point.

The U.S. Postal Service commemorated Chisholm by placing her on a stamp in 2014, making her the 37th issued in its Black Heritage Series. 

A full-length statue in the halls of Congress would be doubly meaningful, Clarke said, since so few Black people have been honored that way. 

A bronze of Frederick Douglass is the only full-length statue of a Black man in the building, according to the Architect of the Capitol, while Parks is the only Black woman. Some National Guardsmen were seen taking photos with the Parks statue when they were called to protect the Capitol in the aftermath of its storming by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6. 

Two more Black women are expected to be added to the National Statuary Hall Collection, which consists of 100 historical figures, with each of the 50 states selecting a pair. Florida recently commissioned a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, to replace obscure Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. And in December, Virginia’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed. He is expected to be replaced with a statue of Barbara Johns, who as a 16-year-old in 1951 led her Farmville, Virginia, classmates in a student strike protesting unequal education. 

The bill to install a Chisholm statue would not place her in the Statuary Hall collection. New York’s statues are of Robert R. Livingston, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and George Clinton, a general during the Revolutionary War, New York governor and vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Clarke said a statue of Chisholm, whose historic presidential campaign was launched 50 years ago next year, would be especially timely. 

“Today, our country has a Black woman serving in our Executive Branch,” Clarke said, referring to Harris. “We need to show young people this is not something that happened by accident. It took passion and dedication. It took someone who was unbought and unbossed.”

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