Last summer, the city of New York launched She Built NYC, an initiative that strives to bolster the number of public monuments that pay tribute to women’s history. The program selected Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman in the United States, to honor with its first statue. And now, as Amy Plitt reports for Curbed NYC, She Built has announced that it is commissioning monuments to an additional four pioneering women.
The recipients—famed jazz singer Billie Holiday, civil rights advocate Elizabeth Jennings Graham, medical activist Helen Rodríguez Trías and one of history's few lighthouse keepers, Katherine Walker—are all intimately linked to New York City, and their statues will be located in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, respectively. Together with the upcoming statue of Chisholm in Brooklyn, this means that all five of New York’s boroughs will now have a public monument to a woman, according to Julia Jacobs of the New York Times.
The existing statues—and, granted, there aren’t many of them—honoring women’s history in the city were previously clustered in Manhattan. As Jake Offenhartz of Gothamist reported in 2017, at last count there were approximately 145 monuments of historical male figures in New York. Only five historical women, by contrast, were represented among the city’s statuary: “Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and, most recently, Harriet Tubman,” according to Offenhartz.
She Built NYC seeks to correct this imbalance. “We cannot tell the story of New York City without recognizing the invaluable contributions of the women who helped build and shape it,” New York City first lady Chirlane McCray said in a statement announcing the new monuments. “In honoring these four trailblazers ... New Yorkers will have the opportunity to see powerful women who made history receive the recognition they deserve.”
The placement of each of the four new statues is deliberate. The monument to Holiday, for instance, will be built in the borough where she once lived; after moving from Baltimore at the age of 13, she resided in Addisleigh Park and later in Flushing, Queens. Still regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Holiday got her start singing in Harlem jazz clubs, and went on to collaborate with the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw. Holiday broke racial barriers in the years before the civil rights movement, becoming the one of the first black woman to sing with a white orchestra. Her haunting song “Strange Fruit” remains an iconic condemnation of racial violence.
Jennings Graham’s statue will be located next to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan—a fitting choice for the woman who helped bring an end to segregation on New York transit. In 1854, 27-year-old Jennings (Graham was added to her name after marrying in 1860) was running late to church and tried to board a streetcar that did not serve African American customer. When the conductor confronted her, she refused to move.
“I told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church,” she wrote after the incident, as the New York Times reported in 2005.
The conductor then tried to remove her by force; Jennings continued to resist, clinging to a window and then the conductor’s coat. Ultimately, the police arrived and threw her off the street car. She subsequently wrote about the incident in the New York Tribune, which in turn sparked widespread protests among New York’s African American community. She won $225 in a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railway Company, the conductor and the driver, laying the groundwork for future transit discrimination trials. By 1860, all New York City transit lines served African American passengers.
The monument to Rodríguez Trías will sit near Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, where she worked as the head of pediatrics. Rodríguez Trías devoted her medical career to advocating for minority and low-income patients, particularly women and children. She was a reproductive rights activist, and helped draft key guidelines ensuring informed consent for sterilization procedures, including a regulation that requires the patient to provide written consent in a language she can understand. She also served as the medical director of the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute, and became first Latina director of the American Public Health Association.
Lastly, the statue honoring Walker will stand at the Staten Island Ferry—a celebration of her “impact on the borough and on maritime life of the city,” the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio says in a statement. After her husband died in 1890, Walker took a job as the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse north of Staten Island. She was responsible for safely guiding ships through Kill Van Kull, a channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey, and signalling for help in the event of shipwrecks. Few women in American history have worked as lighthouse keepers, but Walker held her position for nearly 30 years. She raised her children at the lighthouse, rowing them to and from school on Staten Island.
Construction of the five new monuments is due to begin in 2021. According to Jacobs of the Times, the city is hoping to commission women as the artists for the job.