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Statue of Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar is a First for Chicago Parks

By Sam Cholke | September 6, 2014 5:16pm | Updated on September 8, 2014 8:24am
 The statue unveiled at  Dunbar Park , 200 E. 31st St., depicts the poet 6-feet tall in bronze clasping his first book.
Unveiling of Paul Laurence Dunbar Statue
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HYDE PARK — The cover came off a new statue of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on Saturday, possibly the first ever full-figure statue of a famous African American in a Chicago park.

“I think at the bottom of my heart that this is truly a great thing the Park District has done,” said sculptor Debra Hand, who was commissioned two years ago to create a statue of poet for the park named in his honor.

Though hundreds of statues of African Americans exist in the city, a large portion in the parks, none depicts the full figure of a real-life person.

A black doughboy stands atop the “Victory Monument” at 35th and King Drive, but he is only a stand-in for all black soldiers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image graces the park named in his honor in Auburn Gresham, but it is a bust — the bodiless head of the historic figure.

A representative for the Chicago Park District was not immediately able to identify any full-figure statues of historic African Americans in other parks.

Dunbar may be the first for a Chicago park and he will have good company, joining statues of former Mayor Harold Washington and Walter H. Dyett on city and school property in Bronzeville and writers William Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen in other parks.

Dunbar was one of the first black poets and novelists to be widely read and acclaimed by both white and black audiences.

In the 6-foot-tall bronze statue, Dunbar clasps his first book, “Oak and Ivy,” while radiating a stoic look down from the marble pedestal.

“There’s a slight sternness, but not dictatorial,” Hand said. “There is some thought going on behind those eyes.”

Hand said she didn’t view the lack of sculptures of black historical figures as a slight by the Park District, but more a reflection of how long the style once popular a century ago has now been out of fashion.

More than 40 parks are named after famous African Americans, Hand pointed out.

The sculpture was unveiled at a ceremony Saturday at Dunbar Park, 200 E. 31st St., with local politicians and park district officials.

The statue was unveiled to cheers and applause.

Hand grew emotional when she spoke to the crowd.

"This is my life's work, to shine and make my community proud," she said, fighting tears. "I see so many faces of so many people I love."

The statue represents history and opportunity, said Leonard McGee, vice president of the Dunbar Advisory Council.

"We've come to offer a dream, to show dreams come true, the dreams of our kids, by providing a free environment for them to play safely: the park," he said.

CONTRIBUTING: Mina Bloom

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