It was at the Helen Marshall Cultural Center that residents, elected officials, civic leaders, friends and family convened for a celebration of the life and legacy of the Honorable Helen Marie Marshall.
Marshall is best known as Queens’ first Black Borough President, having served over a decade in the position from 2002 to 2013. However, it was her long history as a public servant which included service in the NYC Council and New York State Assembly, several civic accomplishments and for being one of the original founders of the Langston Hughes Community Library which were highlighted for the tribute.
Assembly Member Jeff Aubry and Andrew Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako) were the designated Co-Masters of Ceremony. Aubry represented her long elected official service while Baako, former Exec. Director and Founding Member of the Hughes Library, was a keen reminder of Marshalls legacy with the Library.
Dignitaries from across the city came to pay homage to a woman with a long footprint in public service. Congressman Charles Rangel spoke to her beginnings. “She gave me my first fund raiser,” he said. Prior to becoming a Queens resident Marshall was born and lived in Harlem. He spoke of Marshall’s affection for Queens and the pride of its residents.
“Her life gives us many reasons to celebrate,” said former Mayor David Dinkins who attended the tribute. He was part of a large contingent of representatives from the outer boroughs who made their way for the service.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney spoke about Marshall’s role as a leader for women. “She was on the cutting edge of accepting women in leadership,” she said. She spoke of how Marshall’s actions helped change the way women were treated in politics.
Marshall was credited for honoring the changing diversity in Queens and embracing the many nationalities that called it home. She was noted for having an affection for children and working for schools’ rights, parks and libraries. She worked to provide funding to upgrade every library. This work was noted by the Center for an Urban Future which reported, Marshall steered more money towards library projects than the other borough presidents combined did under their jurisdictions at the time. Marshall was credited with revitalizing Northern Boulevard and the beautification of the Queens waterfront in Astoria.
This Queen of Queens was born of immigrant parents and served in government at a time when “it wasn’t easy being a person of color,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks.
Members of the Queens General Assembly, which promote cross cultural exchanges between ethnic groups, stood together on stage to honor its founder. Delegates from the general assembly are appointed from each of the boroughs’ community boards.
Marshall was a graduate of Queens College. It’s President, Dr. Felix Matos-Rodriquez, spoke fondly about her legacy with the college. “There are few places on our campus where you do not see reminders of Helen,” he said. President Matos-Rodriquez made the offer that Queens College would be honored to receive her papers.
The celebration ended with moving reflections from her long time staff members who referred to her as “auntie, our leader, friend and an anchor,” said Shurn Anderson. Her grandsons, Chandler and Chasen Marshall, ended the service speaking about how her tours around Queens, her affection and inspiration. Chandler recently ran for class President at his college and he won.
Marshall began her career as a teacher, before transitioning into her role as public servant. Her service also included the Parent Teachers Association (PTA), District Leader, Democratic National Committee Woman, founder of the annual Elmhurst Family Day celebration. Nearly everyone had a story about how much she spoke incessantly when it came to Queens and how, when walking down the street, she had to stop and talk to everyone.
Born September 30, 1929, Marshall passed away at her home in Palm Desert California on March 4, 2017. Her husband, Donald, preceded her in death by two months.§
As published in the April 2017 issue of Communities of Color News