Despite a recent New York Times op-ed piece foretelling the end of black Harlem, the neighborhood remains an important home for African-American culture. Historical monuments throughout the area celebrate the legacies of those who had a major influence in the neighborhood and beyond. The following five statues and sculptures in Harlem commemorate powerful figures in African-American history.
A bronze statue of Duke Ellington stands tall next to a piano on a circular platform supported by three columns. Installed in 1997, the statue is located near the northeast corner of Central Park at 110th Street and 5th Avenue. Other tributes to Ellington in the neighborhood include the renamed West 110th Street, called Duke Ellington Boulevard, and an annual high-school jazz band competition at the Lincoln Center called Essentially Ellington.
At the northwest corner of Central Park at 110th Street and Eighth Avenue is a statue of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, orator and writer. At the top of the steps leading to the statue one sees a masthead for “The North Star,” the abolitionist newspaper Douglass started in 1847; Central Park West itself becomes Frederick Douglass Boulevard once it crosses into Harlem.
Along Frederick Douglass Boulevard toward 122nd Avenue is a statue of Harriet Tubman, the great “conductor” of the Underground Railroad and future face on the $20 bill. The sculptor of the statue, Alison Saar, named this work, “Swing Low.”
In 1945, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became the first African-American member of Congress to represent New York, and he fought for civil rights throughout his adult life. His likeness, unveiled in 2005, is called “Higher Ground,” and stands in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. New York State Office building at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard (Seventh Avenue).
Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor known for her depictions of African-American life, crafted a monument to honor Ralph Ellison and his acclaimed novel, “Invisible Man.” At the center of the 15-foot bronze panel is a void in the shape of a man, seemingly captured in mid-stride. The silhouette alludes to the societal invisibility of Ellison’s unnamed protagonist. The sculpture features two granite panels inscribed with Ellison quotes and his biography. It sits across from Ellison’s last home, at 730 Riverside Drive, at 150th Street.