Last Wednesday, First Lady Chirlane McCray and former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen announced at the Brooklyn Museum that the four monuments will be erected in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.
The announcement, which coincides with the start of Women’s History Month, is part of She Built NYC, a citywide initiative to erect more public monuments of women in the five boroughs.
Last November, McCray and Glen announced that Brooklyn will be home to a new statue of Shirley Chisholm at the Parkside entrance of Prospect Park.
“Each one of the five boroughs can now look forward to celebrating their own female hometown heroes,” McCray said.
In Queens, a statue of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday will be built near Borough Hall. Holiday, who lived in Addisleigh Park and Flushing, was one of the first black women to sing with a white orchestra.
Her song “Strange Fruit” protesting lynching was named by Time Magazine as “Song of the Century” in 1999. Holiday received four posthumous Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Manhattan honoree is Elizabeth Jennings Graham, whose monument will be built in the Vanderbilt Avenue Corridor near Grand Central Terminal. In 1854, Graham, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, boarded a streetcar that did not allow African-American passengers.
When the conductor told her to leave Graham refused, and she was forcibly removed by the police. She sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company and won.
In addition to winning $225 in damages, Jennings’ case, city officials note, was the “first step toward ending transit segregation” in New York City. By 1860, all of the city’s streetcar lines were open to African-Americans.
In the Bronx, Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias will be honored with a statue at St. Mary’s Park. Trias, a pioneer in pediatrics and public health, was the medical director of the state Department of Health’s AIDS Institute. She also served as the first Latina director of the American Public Health Association.
Trias is best known for her advocacy of reproductive rights, against forced sterilizations and for HIV/AIDS care and prevention.
Finally, the last statue will be of Katherine Walker, the longtime keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse, which is credited for saving the lives of at least 50 sailors from shipwreck. She was one of the few female lighthouse keepers in American history.
Her monument will be erected at the Staten Island Ferry landing.
According to Glen, the monuments will be commissioned through the Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art program, which requires one percent of the budget be spent on public artwork.
The city will select a different artist for each monument this year. The statues are expected to be built throughout 2021 and 2022.
“This can’t be a one-and-done kind of exercise, there are too many great women,” Glen said. “We need at least one, if not many, She Built NYC monuments in every borough.”
McCray added that She Built NYC will partner with the Museum of the City of New York to identify future monuments that honor women. They will use recommendations from a previously convened selection committee and the public nominations list to decide.
“One monument in each borough is not enough, it’s just the beginning,” she said. “We have a long way to go to correct the glaring gender imbalance in our public spaces.”
She Built NYC opened up public nominations last June, which yielded 327 suggestions from New Yorkers. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, received 219 votes, by far the most on the list.
Journalist and activist Jane Jacobs ranked second with 93 votes, while Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, received 91 votes.
McCray said the selection process for the monuments was “quite democratic.” They considered not just the votes, but the descriptions of the nominees. Specifically, the First Lady said they were looking for leaders, advocates and “firsts.”
“We didn’t want it to be literally a popularity contest,” Glen said. “This is really about expressing the wholesome history of women in the city, and that can’t just be done numerically.”
Additionally, an advisory committee that reviewed the public recommendations actually suggested honoring groups of women, rather than individuals.
According to committee members who spoke to Hyperallergic, a Brooklyn-based online arts magazine, they selected groups to highlight that “history is never changed by one individual alone.”
However, McCray and Glen said the city chose to honor individuals in their first round of monuments instead.
In response to the criticism, McCray said said statues for groups of women will “absolutely be planned in the future.”
“That turned out to be a little more complicated than we anticipated,” she said. “We want to make sure that the history is accurate, and that we are getting the kind of representation we want.
“It’s in the process,” McCray added. “We had hoped that we could include a grouping in this announcement. Wasn’t possible, but stay tuned.”