In honor of Women’s History Month, the city announced that four new monuments honoring female leaders will be built throughout the five boroughs.
The project is part of the city’s She Built NYC initiative and is being spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray. In a statement put out yesterday (March 6) by Mayor Bill De Blasio’s office, she said that, “We cannot tell the story of New York City without recognizing the invaluable contributions of the women who helped build and shape it.” She continued, “Public monuments should tell the full history and inspire us to realize our potential – not question our worth. In honoring these four trailblazers today, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to see powerful women who made history receive the recognition they deserve.”
The four women selected for this honor were chosen after an open call last year asking the public to submit their ideas for women that have made extraordinary contributions to society. These four women are Billie Holiday, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías, and Katherine Walker. As the announcement puts it, the monuments for these female leaders “mark a critical step towards creating a more dynamic, diverse, and inclusive collection of permanent public artwork across all five boroughs.” The monuments will be built across the boroughs with Billie Holidays in Queens (near Queens Borough Hall), Elizabeth Jennings Graham in Manhattan (near Grand Central Terminal), Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías in the Bronx (at St. Mary’s Park), and Katherine Walker in Staten Island (at the Staten Island Ferry Landing).
It was announced late last year that Brooklyn would get a Shirley Chisholm statue at the entrance of Prospect Park. By the end of this project, there will be a monument honoring powerful women in every NYC borough.
Below is the description released for each of the new monuments:
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan Gough, 1915-1959) is one of the most celebrated jazz singers of all time. Her career helped to define the New York “swing sing” jazz scene and to challenge racial barriers. One of the first black women to sing with a white orchestra, she struck out on her own to win fame with Strange Fruit, a powerful protest song about lynching, named by Time Magazine “the song of the century” (1999). Her career was recognized by four posthumous Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A monument to Billie Holiday will be built in her home borough near Queens Borough Hall. Holiday lived in Addisleigh Park and later in Flushing.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham:
Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827–1901) challenged racial segregation a century before the modern Civil Rights movement. On July 16, 1854, the 27-year-old schoolteacher boarded a streetcar that did not accept African-Americans as passengers. When the conductor confronted her, she refused to leave until forcibly removed by the police. Graham used her education and connections in New York’s middle-class black community to publish an account of the incident and sue the Third Avenue Railroad Company, the conductor, and the driver. The judge ruled in her favor, holding that “a colored person… had the same rights as others.” In addition to winning $225 in damages, Jennings’s case took the first step toward ending transit segregation in New York. By 1860 all of the city’s streetcar lines were open to African-Americans. In her later years, Jennings continued to teach, helping to found the first kindergarten in the city for black children.
A monument to Elizabeth Jennings Graham next to Grand Central Terminal, the city’s most iconic transit hub, highlights the interconnected history of civil rights and transportation in New York as well as the historic role of this important activist.
Dr. Helen Rodríguez:
Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías (1929-2001) was a pioneer in pediatrics and public health. Over the course of her career, Dr. Rodríguez Trías focused on issues including reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS care and prevention; she did this work on behalf of women and children, especially those in poor and minority communities. She became the medical director of the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute and the first Latinx director of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Dr. Rodríguez Trías was a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal. Among her greatest legacies are shaping regulations that govern informed content for sterilizations and empowering low-income and minority women through the women’s health movement.
A monument to Dr. Rodriguez Trías in St. Mary’s Park, which is near Lincoln Hospital (today known as NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln), is fitting; Dr. Rodríguez Trías was the head of the hospital’s pediatrics department and advocated for better medical care for the communities of color that the institution served.
Katherine Walker (1838-1941), the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse for nearly three decades, is credited with saving the lives of at least 50 people and maintaining the light that guided countless ships to safe passage through Kill Van Kull, the shipping channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. One of the few female lighthouse keepers in American history, she broke barriers in a male-dominated field and raised her two children at the lighthouse, rowing them back and forth to attend school on Staten Island. Walker’s story sheds light on the largely untold history of women working in New York City’s thriving marine ecosystem. Her efforts contributed to the infrastructure of the shipping industry, which was the lifeblood of the city’s economy for centuries.
A monument to Katherine Walker at the Staten Island ferry landing celebrates her impact on the borough and on maritime life of the city.
featured image source: Fcb981 ; Eric Baetscher (attribution required) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Also published on Medium.