Nassau Pol Proposes Renaming County Building For Nation’s First Black Congresswoman

Webp.net-resizeimage – 2020-07-22T174151.216
Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first Black congresswoman, represented parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens in New York City.

A Nassau County lawmaker has proposed renaming a county building in honor of the country’s first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. 

Nassau Legislator Josh Lafazan (D-Syosset) introduced the resolution Monday that would designate the county building at 240 Old Country Road in Mineola as the “Shirley Chisholm Building.” Lafazan said he decided to introduce the bill because the current moment “calls for action,” and he noted that despite the county’s 121-year existence, no major county government buildings are currently named after a Black historical figure. 

“When you drive through the county seat, the names we put on our buildings send a message about that county’s government,” Lafazan said. “And I think having choices of what names are on a building sends a really important message from Nassau’s government that all of our citizens belong here.” 

The proposal comes amid a national reckoning around systemic racism that has also played out on Long Island and beyond through protests since late May. 

The bill, which is co-sponsored by seven other legislators, including Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), also has the support of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, according to Lafazan. If passed, the “Shirley Chisholm Building” would continue to house county departments including the Board of Elections, Consumer Affairs, the County Clerk and the County Comptroller.

The bill also directs the Nassau Department of Public Works to install the requisite signage and a dedication plaque to Chisholm around the building within 60 days of its passage, and instructs the Department of Information Technology to update all online materials regarding the name of the building. 

Lafazan said Chisholm was specifically chosen not only because she is a “political hero” of his, but also due to her importance amongst activists on LI. Lafazan said many local activists he has spoken with have either directly worked with Chisholm or have parents who worked with her. 

“Shirley Chisholm is a figure who we can rally around and who can be uniting as somebody who fought for equality for all people,” Lafazan said. 

Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm first served as a New York State Assemblywoman from 1965 to 1968 before representing the state’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983. The first Black woman ever elected to Congress, Chisholm also became the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination when she ran for president in 1972. 

Travis Nelson, 21, a student and community activist from Hempstead, said Lafazan reached out to him in mid-June as the legislator looked for input on which Black individuals should be considered in the naming of the building. 

Nelson said the decision to name the building after a New York-based Black leader like Chisholm is an important way to “cement history in the community,” and said that selecting a Black woman to commemorate adds another layer of significance. 

“What we’re seeing as a part of this national movement is also a big push for Black womanhood to be recognized,” Nelson said. “And so in the wake of everything going on, for our county to start taking those preemptive measures in terms of rethinking, renaming and reshaping how we remember history, it’s pretty significant.” 

But when it comes to Chisholm’s connection to Nassau specifically, some members of the legislature would prefer to see the building named after a Black figure with stronger local ties. Chris Boyle, spokesman for the Legislature’s Republican Majority Caucus, said in a statement that the caucus would review the resolution, and added that while Chisholm is a “groundbreaking official,” the caucus may look to push for a more county-centric one.   

“If we are going to be naming buildings we may first want to recognize the legacy of the many African-American leaders and trailblazers from Nassau who made a difference in our county and world,” Boyle said. “From the Tuskegee Airmen to leaders in civil rights, government, and every other field.”

Despite those reservations, Lafazan said he is confident the bill will pass the legislature. But for activists like Nelson, adding Chisholm’s name to the building is just a small first step to addressing larger problems surrounding inequity and racism in the community. 

“What happens after this is furthering the conversation,” Nelson said. “We can rename things until kingdom come, we can paint all the murals, but if we don’t take that conversation and take those actions and attack the bigger problems in terms of the inequities and disparities that still exist in this country, then all of those things really do become just performance.” 

Related Story: Josh Lafazan: The New Kid in Nassau Legislature

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters here. Sign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.