GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Why is Rosa Parks standing in front of the bus seat which she famously refused to give up? That’s a question that has come up frequently about the statue of the civil rights hero that graces the entrance to Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids. 

Ed Dwight designed the statue that the city installed in 2010, and has specific, meaningful reasons for why he portrayed Parks standing defiantly in front of her seat.

“Most of the images I’ve seen of her show her sitting down, this very pitiful woman in a seat, and artists have depicted her as horribly insipid-looking,” explained Dwight.

Parks was only about five feet tall, a very small woman, and he believes it’s difficult to show her sitting down. Dwight said he doesn’t want people to remember her in a small way.

“I wanted people to remember her as a kind of monumental historical figure, rather than this little woman that everyone felt sorry for,” he said. 

Dwight used to be an astronaut. He is now 82 years old, lives in Colorado, and believes strongly in educating future generations about prominent black Americans, but he is not necessarily someone you might have expected to follow that course.

He was the first African American astronaut and he didn’t know anything about black history until he was 42 years old.

“I went to white schools all the way through and I didn’t know who Rosa Parks was, or Harriet Tubman, I had no idea who all these people were,” Dwight said.

It was the first black lt. governor of Colorado who changed the course of his life when he gave Dwight a stack of books on black history and asked him to travel the country, studying monuments, sculptures and memorials of African Americans.

It was research meant to prepare him to create his first sculpture, which would be of Lt. Gov. George Brown, and thus began his love of what leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for.

Those who visit the downtown area don’t walk by the Parks statue without taking notice.

“[Her standing] is a different perspective”, said passerby Cory Blumerick.

Blumrick says he sees the racism that exists today, through what he and his wife, who is Filipino, experience.

“We still deal with every day and it’s so sad, we still have further to go, be we’re getting there, which is good… every time I look at (the statue) I feel appreciation for her and what she did.” 

Margaret Baker also loves to see Rosa Parks standing tall as she walks by on her way to work.

“It means I have a chance and there’s nothing that I can’t do and she made it possible for me to be able to do the things that I want to do that we couldn’t do back then,” Baker explained. 

Dwight has dedicated his second career as an artist to making sure that black history is evident in public spaces like Rosa Parks circle. He looks to Dr. King’s legacy of traveling the country, making speeches, to make people aware of the plight of black Americans.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing with my art, because I have 128 public art pieces and memorials and monuments around this country, and that’s exactly what I’ve done more than anyone else that I can think of, and my reason for doing that is that it works,” Dwight said. 

To see a full list of the projects Dwight has worked on and read about history as an astronaut and engineer, click or tap here