Kate Culkin on the Hall of Fame for Great Americans

“I am a little frightened by what is necessary to elect Miss Lillian D. Wald but am determined to do all I can to bring the election of this great lady, deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame,” Aaron Rabinowitz wrote in October 1964. He was referring to his campaign to elect Wald, the public health advocate who founded the Visiting Nurse Service and the Henry Street Settlement, to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Dedicated in 1900 and designed by Stanford White, the monument was the first hall of fame in the United States. The open-air colonnade with spaces for 102 busts is located at Bronx Community College (BCC), formally home to New York University’s University Heights campus. In August 2017, it was thrust into a national conversation about commemoration in the wake of the riots in Charlottesville, VA, over the removal of confederate monuments. News reports and city and state politicians condemned the presence of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in the hall. The school removed the busts and is considering how to address their presence and removal. The conversation around the monument, however, more commonly focuses on its being old-fashioned and in need of repair, such as the 2009 New York Times article “A Hall of Fame: Forgotten and Forlorn.”

While it is easy to dismiss the monument as outdated and identify its problematic honorees, the process through which people were elected make it and the archives documenting the election process and unveiling ceremonies for the busts valuable sources of twentieth-century cultural and political history.

Dr. Kate Culkin, Professor of History at Bronx Community College CUNY, writes about the campaign to commemorate Lillian D. Wald in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans for The Gotham Center for New York History blog. Read more

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