BK Lawmakers Applaud Expansion of Women Monuments Across The City

Billie Holiday. Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Wikipedia Commons.

Women’s History month is starting off with some bronze, as the city’s First Lady Chirlane McCray and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen announced four new monuments as part of the She Built NYC initiative.

The initiative honors the trailblazing women who have helped shape New York City while addressing the absence of female statues in our public realm.

NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray

The monuments will honor Billie Holiday, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías, and Katherine Walker. According tot he press release on the announcement the monuments will mark a critical step towards creating a more dynamic, diverse, and inclusive collection of permanent public artwork across all five boroughs.

“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,” said McCray.

The four new monuments will be placed throughout the five boroughs:

Billie Holiday. Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Wikipedia Commons.

The monument to Holiday will be built in her home borough near Queens Borough Hall. Holiday lived in Addisleigh Park and later in Flushing. She currently also has a theater named for her in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Restoration Plaza.

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.

The monument to Jennings Graham will be placed in the Vanderbilt Avenue Corridor near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

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.

The monument of Trías will be placed at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx.

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías (1929-2001) was a pioneer in pediatrics and public health. Over the course of her career, Dr. Rodríguez Tríasfocused 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.

The monument of Walker will be placed at the Staten Island Ferry Landing in Staten Island.

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.

The construction of these monuments will come through a $10 million Department of Cultural Affairs allocation over the next four years. Artist selection for each of these monuments will begin by the end of 2019, with artist selection concluding in the first half of 2020. The monuments will be built throughout 2021 and 2022.

The news comes just a few months after the first monument commissioned in honor of the late U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm was announced last Fall to be placed at the Prospect Park entrance. The initiative kicked off with an open call for nominations in June 2018.

The City will also work with the Museum of the City of New York to identify potential future monuments that honor groups of women. The Museum will use the recommendations of the She Built NYC selection committee, as well as the public nominations list, to research and comment on the appropriateness of various groupings of women from the list. The City will then use this research to inform future She Built NYC monuments.  

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler
Max Rose
U.S. Rep.-Elect Max Rose

The announcement was applauded by local lawmakers including Congress members Hakeem Jeffries (D-Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, Mill Basin, Coney Island, parts of Queens), Jerrold Nadler (D-Western Brooklyn, Manhattan) and Max Rose (D-South Brooklyn, Staten Island).

“As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is a powerful image to see Billie Holliday, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías and Katherine Walker join Shirley Chisholm to mark a She Built NYC monument in every borough. I thank the First Lady, former Deputy Mayor Glen and all involved for their critical efforts to ensure public artwork in New York City continues to reflect the diversity of the greatest city in the world,” said Jeffries.  

For too long, we have not done enough to honor the significant contributions of women in our city and our nation. Today’s announcement of a four new monuments in every borough honoring women who have made significant contributions is an important step in correcting that omission, said Nadler.  

“Honoring Katherine Walker with a statue at the Staten Island Ferry Landing is a fitting tribute to an incredible woman who had an immeasurable impact on Staten Island and the City as a whole. I’m excited to see the community’s engagement in the planning and look forward to seeing this project come to fruition,” said Rose.

The launch of She Built NYC followed a report issued by the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers in January 2018, which led Mayor Bill de Blasio to order actions on a number of its recommendations. Most critically, the report called for adding more voices and broader representation to the City’s collection of public art to better reflect its diverse history.