Gwendolyn Brooks: Bringing Community Together Before and After Her Death

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born in Topeka, Kansas, but spent her formative years in Chicago’s south side in Bronzeville, where a bust of her now resides in Brooks Park (4542 S. Greenwood) [1]. Brooks was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize with her 1949 poem Annie Allen. In addition to this she was also the first black woman to be a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress [2]. While these accomplishments, and many more, are listed on the Gwendolyn Brooks: Oracle of Bronzeville monument, they are not the most significant. The most striking aspect of the monument is the sense of community that both it and its subject stand for.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Oracle of Bronzeville on a sunny day. (photo: WWP team for Wander Women project) [14]

The Brooks Park monument is a slightly larger than life size bronze casted bust, depicting Brooks from the waist up. There are five stone seats on the ground, that with the bust form a circle. Behind Brooks is a replica of the front porch of her childhood home. These two elements are connected by a stone pathway leading from the porch to the bust of Brooks. The stones have various quotes from Brooks’ Annie Allen engraved in them in order to give “insight to what it’s like to grow up as a little girl in Bronzeville.” [3] Between the stone pathway that leads up to the monument, the circle of seating, the close to life size depiction of Brooks, and the position of the bust close to the ground, the setup seems to invite viewers to have a conversation with Brooks. Having not been to the monument in person and judging the location and atmosphere solely from the images and videos available online, a single word that could be used to describe the area is community.

The Gwendolyn Brooks: Oracle of Bronzeville monument joined the Chicago monument roster in 2018, just eighteen years after the passing of Brooks, and on what would have been her 101st birthday. What sets this apart from the majority of the other monuments in the city is that it is the only monument in a Chicago public space that depicts a woman for her likeness and depicts a woman of color [4]. In fact, The Oracle of Bronzeville is the first Chicago monument to both honor and depict an African American woman [5]. Brooks continues to make history even after her death.

The monument resides in a park that has been renamed by the Chicago Park District as Brooks Park. However, before the placement of the monument there was no physical reminder of Brooks beyond her name on the sign. This was one of the motivations for the monument [6]. It is unlikely that there could be a more appropriate location for this monument in Chicago. The monument was created with an intention of gathering people to celebrate a community leader in her home neighborhood.  

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame was the main commissioner of and force behind the creation of the statue; however, it was done with the collaboration of the Chicago Park District, the Poetry Foundation, and Brooks Permissions. Another key player in this process was the sculptor, Margot McMahon. McMahon is deeply involved in the Chicago art community. She has various sculptures on display throughout the city and teaches art courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, and at an Oak Park school district [7].

The goal of the artist, Margot McMahon, was to “both educate and invite public interaction”, specifically targeting the younger population in an effort to more fully embody the spirit of Brooks [8]. McMahon “wanted to sculpt her listening to us and giving importance to our stories, like she had for many school children.” [9] In addition to creating her own art, Brooks made a point of supporting the youth of Chicago in their exploration of writing. Her support ranged from publishing the students’ works in books to open mics with prize money [10]. McMahon spent two years working closely with Brooks’ daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, in order to create as accurate a representation of both Brooks’ physical appearance and spirit as possible [11].

The funding for the monument came from a variety of sources, widening the group of stakeholders. A portion of the funding came from the Chicago Park District via a $2,000 grant [12].

Margot McMahon (left) and Nora Brooks Blakely (right) having a conversation with school children. (Photo: Erin Hooley for the Chicago Tribune) [15]

Another source of financial support was found in the public, which resulted in another $5,000 from a GoFundMe page [13]. Turning to the general public for funding greatly increased the number of stakeholders in the equation. There is no immediate negative feedback, nor have there been any reports of vandalism or other destruction. This indicates few disappointments with the project. However, the monument has barely been in place for two years, so time may be a factor. The location of the monument, in the heart of the community where Brooks grew up, also likely plays a significant factor.

Apart from the initial unveiling of the sculpture, there have not been any widely publicized events or community gatherings at the monument. This is likely due to two main factors. The first factor being that the monument is just barely two years old. There simply has not been an ample number of opportunities or events to celebrate in two years. The second reason is that the monument has spent ten months of its two-year existence in a pandemic where traveling and public gatherings have been strongly discouraged. It will be interesting to see how this monument functions within the community over time.

The Bronzeville monument Gwendolyn Brooks: Oracle of Bronzeville aims to both serve as a gathering place for community and inspire creativity. While the design and first two years of the monument’s presence in the community both indicate that it has been successful, it still has lots of time and potential to cultivate community relationships and inspire creativity in many younger generations to come.

Madeleine Lawler, Loyola University Chicago

[1] Poetry Foundation, “Gwendolyn Brooks,” Poetry Foundation, 2017,

[2] Poetry Foundation.

[3] Ravensvoyage Productions, “Gwendolyn Brooks Sculpture,” ed. Rana Segal, Vimeo, April 12, 2018,

[4] Lolly Bowean, “On Gwendolyn Brooks’ Birthday, a Statue of the Powerful Poet Will Be Unveiled on the South Side,” (Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2018),

[5] Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, “CLHOF Installs Sculpture of Gwendolyn Brooks in Brooks Park.,” Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, June 7, 2018,

[6] Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

[7] “Margot McMahon: About the Artist,” Margot McMahon, accessed November 20, 2020,

[8] “GWENDOLYN BROOKS,” Statues For Equality,

[9] Editor, “Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of Bronzeville,” Chicago Defender, June 13, 2018,

[10] Chicago Defender.

[11] Ravensvoyage Productions.

[12] Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

[13] “Gwendolyn Brooks Sculpture Portrait, Organized by Donald G. Evans,”, March 10, 2018,

[14] WWP team, Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of BronzevilleWander Women Project, accessed November 20, 2020,

[15] Erin Hooley and Chicago Tribune, Gwendolyn Brooks Statue, June 6, 2018, Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2018,


Power to the People – Acts of Violence and Vandalism Against the Haymarket Memorial Police Statue

On May 4, 1886, several activists and protestors congregated in Haymarket Square on Des Plaines Street in downtown Chicago to stage a labor demonstration demanding an eight-hour workday. Tensions were high, as the police had killed one civilian worker and injured several more the previous day. As the crowd grew larger, enticed by the fiery orators among the crowd, the police began to approach the crowd in column formation, numbering 175 officers in total. As the police neared the crowd, an unidentified assailant threw a bomb into the police ranks, consequently starting a riot between the police and protestors [1]. The incident, known as the Chicago Haymarket Riot, resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and four civilians, along with many more injured and several hundred protestors arrested. Eight of the arrested civilians were charged as “anarchists” and sentenced to death. Three years later the city dedicated a monument to commemorate the role of the police in keeping the peace at the riot. In over a century since the incident, both the Haymarket Riot and the Police Memorial Statue to commemorate the incident have been maintained visible significance on the issues of free speech, the right of public assembly, organized labor, the role law enforcement, and justice [2].

A widely used depiction of the explosion that instigated the Haymarket Riot. Illustration is from a book published by the CPD Captain during the riot, Michael Schaak. (Michael Schaack, “Haymarket Bombing,” 1889, Anarchy and Anarchists).

On May 30, 1889, the city of Chicago unveiled the Haymarket Riot Police Memorial Statue to commemorate the role of the police in the tragic events three years prior. Commissioned by a group of business and civic leaders through private investment funds from

Workers posing with the Haymarket Police Statue after installation in Haymarket Square, May 1889 (“The Birth of a Monument,” 2020,

the Union League of Chicago, the revealing ceremony in Haymarket Square was led by one Frank Degan, the son of officer Mathias Degan, who was one of the seven officers killed during the riot [3]. The fact that this statue was commissioned by city officialdom and unveiled by police supporters shows that the city and the police wanted to control public memory of this historical event, portraying the police as heroes and the working-class crowd as a mob filled with anarchists. In fact, the nine-foot bronze statue, designed by Frank Batchelder and sculpted by Johannes Gilbert, was the first known statue in the United States to honor police [4]. Since the statue’s completion it has been moved seven times and often subject to repairs or rebuilds due to continued vandalism. This fact reinforces the controversy that surrounds the statue, including the memory of the incident itself. To some, the Haymarket Police Memorial Statue demonstrates the crucial role of the police, while to others it represents the powerful city leaders using force to oppress the working class [5].

In July 1900, the statue was moved from Haymarket Square to the intersection of Randolph and Ogden, near Union Park due to repeated vandalism. The statue remained in this spot until May 4, 1927, when it was hit and dislodged by an errant streetcar. The operator claimed failed breaks were at fault but was later heard saying he was “sick of seeing that policeman with his arm raised.” [6]. After repairs that took until early 1928, the statue moved to its third location, this time in Union Park. Remaining at this location until June 2, 1957, it continued to suffer from vandals, though nothing quite as bad as what it suffered at the second or fourth locations [7].

The statue’s fourth location, at the intersection of Randolph Street and the Kennedy Expressway, was a scene of continued attempts to destroy or vandalize the statue. Installed on June 2, 1957 only two hundred feet from the scene of the incident, the statue remained unperturbed aside from the occasional

The rebuilt statue being installed once again at the Randolph & Kennedy location on May 4, 1970 (“Repaired Haymarket Statue,” 2020,

act of vandalism for over a decade. On May 4, 1968, the 82nd anniversary of the incident, the statue was covered in black paint after yet another confrontation between police and Vietnam protestors [8]. On October 6, 1969, a bomb was detonated between the legs of the statue, blowing it off the pedestal. After being rebuilt and unveiled on the at the same location on May 4, 1970, the statue was bombed yet again on October 5, 1970. The bombing was claimed by an activist group called The Weatherman to “show our allegiance to our brothers in New York prisons and our black brothers everywhere…to overthrow our racist and fascist society. Power to the People.” [9]. Once again, we see contention between working class civilians and the city’s police or leadership, represented here by the battle over the statue.

After being rebuilt yet again, the statue was relocated to the State Street Chicago Police Department headquarters on February 5, 1972, where it remained until October 5, 1976. The statues sixth location was the CPD training academy, where it was located from October 1976 until June 1, 2007 [10]. Both locations exposed the statue to further vandalism, but nothing that approached the violence or statement of the bombings at the Randolph and Kennedy location. The statues seventh and current location is the CPD headquarters on Michigan Avenue. The rededication ceremony was officiated by one Geraldine Docka, the great-granddaughter of the same Mathias Degan who was killed in the Haymarket Riot [11]. This ceremony represents continued effort of the city officialdom to promote the need for police while simultaneously silencing the voices of the working-class and silencing this dark spot on the city’s history [12].

The city’s need to control the fate of the statue, and therefore the narrative of this history, has led to continual protests and vandalism against the Haymarket Police Memorial and what it stands for. Illinois’ Labor Society President Leslie Orear has said, “workers claim the event was a ‘police riot’…’nobody did a damn thing until the police arrived.’ The police story is that they saved the city from anarchist terrorism.” [13]. Orear has additionally claimed that the feelings toward the police memorial statue is not meant to dishonor police, but he can see how they may be sensitive to the sentiment [14]. These issues concerning this statue are still prevalent today. With the incidents of police brutality and killings of unarmed black civilians, many still see the CPD, and police departments across the nation, as oppressive institutions. Oppressive not only regarding class, but race and even gender as well. Perhaps focusing on the Haymarket Riot and historical memory surrounding the event, we can gain an understanding of the deeper meaning of the events that have created the rift between the police and many groups and individuals in our country.

Nick Spoerke, Loyola University Chicago

[1] – “The Haymarket Memorial.” Last modified 2020.

[2] – “The Haymarket Memorial.”

[3] – Ray Johnson. “The Chicago Haymarket Riot Police Memorial Statue – A Tumultuous History of its Own.” Last modified May 4, 2017.

“Haymarket Memorial Statue.” Last modified 2020.

[4] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[5] – Johnson.

[6] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[7] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[8] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[9] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[10] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[11] – “Haymarket Memorial Statue.”

[12] – Aimee Levitt. “Remembering the Haymarket Affair After the City’s Attempts to Forget It.” May 1, 2018.

[13] – Levitt.

[14] – Levitt.