Keeping Black History Alive in Riverside Park

The Ralph Ellison Memorial draws a crowd during the pandemic

| 19 Feb 2021 | 02:36

A crucial piece of Black history lies right within New Yorkers’ reach.

The Ralph Ellison Memorial, located in Riverside Park, was created by artist Elizabeth Catlett and dedicated in 2003, thanks to community efforts to keep alive the memory of Ralph Ellison, author of the widely acclaimed novel “Invisible Man.” Beyond his literary feats, Ellison was also a cherished neighbor at 730 Riverside Drive, just across the street from where the memorial now stands.

“I just always have a real sense of affection for both of them,” Dale Dobson said of Ellison and his wife, Fanny. Dobson was part of the Ralph Ellison Memorial Committee and grew up in the same building where Ellison lived.

The Ralph Ellison Memorial Committee, though no longer currently active, played an integral role in the memorial’s dedication in collaboration with the Riverside Park Conservancy, which continues to oversee care for the site and normally would host community events. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in more formal gatherings for the time being, according to Riverside Park Conservancy’s President and CEO Dan Garodnick, but the memorial is still being celebrated by the local community.

The memorial was originally conceptualized, designed, and built over a multi-year period beginning in 1998, following Ellison’s death in 1994. Most statues of famed Black leaders are “figurative,” according to historian and former Ralph Ellison Memorial Committee Chairman John Reddick, with the likeness of the person being memorialized. For Ellison’s tribute, community members gravitated toward something different.

A bronze sculpture with a cutout of a man seemingly frozen in motion stands fifteen feet tall; Reddick believes the design is suggestive of the Black experience depicted in “Invisible Man.”

“That invisible-ness,” Reddick explained, “that sort of hollow in the artwork, in the end reflects ... elements of the community as you move around it and look through the space.”

Joining Forces

Though the project ultimately had to be approved by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, with sponsorship from the late New York City councilman Stanley Michels, according to Reddick, the Riverside Park Conservancy and the Ralph Ellison Memorial Committee joined forces to raise funds for the project. Now, 70 Riverside Park Conservancy volunteers work to maintain the Ralph Ellison Memorial and others under the group’s care.

Normally, the Riverside Park Conservancy would also play a role in organizing events at — and in honor of — the Ralph Ellison Memorial. In 2019, the group hosted a tour of the memorial with the World Economic Forum, according to Garodnick.

Over the past year, community members have found creative ways to come together without the formal events. Impromptu, socially distant jazz performances at the memorial offered some locals a reprieve from the pandemic during its early days last spring.

“One day, I just stumbled up there,” Reddick said, “and there they were having a little mini jazz concert.”

“People were just dancing and, you know, enjoying themselves,” Dobson explained. “And I think really just keeping their sanity.”

These weekly performances only came to a stop once the weather grew colder, according to Dobson.

Culture in the Neighborhood

It’s a phenomenon that Ellison himself may have appreciated. When he was still alive, Ellison drew inspiration from the culture in his neighborhood, with a particular fondness for jazz music, according to Reddick. He then imbued his literary work with these influences.

“Mr. Ellison loved jazz,” Reddick recalled. “He loved the rhythm of African American speech, he was very much into jazz music, and so it’s all reflected in his writing — the cadence of his writing, or the language.”

Ellison was well loved by his community in return, according to Dobson, who still resides at 730 Riverside Drive. She has fond memories of their interactions during her childhood.

“I had a doll, like a rag doll that I loved, when I was ... seven years old or something like that,” Dobson explained. “I guess I used to carry her around. And even when I was a teenager, if I got on the elevator and I saw he got on, he’d say ‘How’s Raggedy Ann?’ It was really cute.”

As for the future of the Ralph Ellison Memorial, Dobson has high hopes that the community might be able to once again plan events sometime soon, likely in celebration of the upcoming 70-year anniversary of “Invisible Man” and, after that, the 20-year anniversary of the memorial dedication.

Even without the events, though, Dobson, Reddick, and Garodnick all believe that the memorial serves not only as a point of pride for those who created it, but also as a tribute to Ralph Ellison that visitors can learn from to better appreciate his work and involvement in the local community.

“‘Invisible Man’ inspired the design of the Riverside Park monument and was a groundbreaking piece of literature,” Garodnick said. “It was a work that illuminated the complexities and challenges of being Black in America ... so this monument is special because of its recognition of the life and work of Ellison, but also because of his specific connection to the neighborhood.”

“’Invisible Man’ inspired the design of the Riverside Park monument and was a groundbreaking piece of literature.” Dan Garodnick, president and CEO, Riverside Park Conservancy