Advocacy and Memory at the Hall of Fame For Great Americans

By Kate Culkin

Aaron Rabinowitz with the Wald bust and women dressed in period costumes at the unveiling ceremony, 1971.

Aaron Rabinowitz with the Wald bust and women dressed in period costumes at the unveiling ceremony, 1971.

“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While it is easy to dismiss the monument as outdated and identify its problematic honorees, the process through which people were elected make it and the archives documenting the election process and unveiling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. Every five years, at least 100 electors chosen by the NYU Senate selected the honorees, who were required to be American citizens who had “distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in the arts, sciences and other pursuits directed toward the betterment of mankind” and been dead for at least 25 years. The public nominated the names from which the electors chose, however, and from 1900 through the 1970s Americans mounted vocal campaigns for those they found worthy. The slogan “Every American is a Shareholder in the Hall of Fame” stressed the public nature of the election. BCC’s archivist Cynthia Tobar and assistant archivist Allen Thomas have recently processed the 110 linear feet of the Hall’s records, making them publicly accessible for the first time.

An analysis of the documentation of the campaign and ceremony for Wald offers an opportunity to explore what both she and the Hall of Fame symbolized by the 1960s. Wald was elected in 1970, at the tail end of the Hall’s run of elections. In 1973, NYU sold the campus to New York City to house BCC; while NYU originally pledged money to help with monument’s upkeep, it withdrew that support by 1976, the year of the final election.

Lillian Wald Committee letterhead, 1965.

Lillian Wald Committee letterhead, 1965.

The hall still had enough cultural clout in the 1960s to inspire Rabinowitz to mount an extensive campaign for Wald. Wald, who had died in 1940, was first eligible in 1965. Rabinowitz was driven by a personal connection to Wald. A Russian immigrant, as a child he joined the Henry Street’s Settlement’s American Heroes Club, which focused on studying Americans who made contributions to the country; eventually the club became involved in campaigning for reform movements. Rabinowitz became a successful real estate developer and served as the first commissioner of the New York State Board of Housing. The man who had studied American heroes under Wald’s direction, and credited her with much of his success, wanted to ensure that she herself was enshrined as an American hero.

While many groups lobbied for nominees, the Committee for the Election of Lillian D. Wald to the Hall of Fame at New York University mounted a particularly well-organized campaign. It stressed the breadth of her public service and her national and global influence, while also invoking stories of individuals helped by Wald. In 1965, the committee published three booklets to send to all electors. In “Lillian D. Wald: Pioneer in Public Health Nursing,” Warren Eberle, a member of the Henry Street Settlement’s board of directors, detailed her work for public health. “Lillian Wald of Henry Street” was a “memorandum in support of the candidacy” of Wald. Adolph A. Berle, chairman of the campaign, wrote the introduction. Berle, a lawyer who had formed part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” also had a personal connection to Wald, having volunteered at the Henry Street Settlement. He stressed the importance of Wald’s contributions to the American social fabric, writing, “We should honor her more for the mark she made on American civilization by helping shape an American conscience that during her lifetime alone began to make us realize we are our brother’s keeper and to make this the cornerstone of our social philosophy.”

A third publication, “Endorsements of Lillian D. Wald” collected excerpts of letters of support for Wald’s election. Many of the original letters are in the Hall of Fame collection. New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller endorsed Wald’s election on behalf of himself and the citizens of New York State, noting, “there are thousands of people living today in happy circumstances who owe their position, their achievements, to the Henry Street Settlement or to one of the other organizations she founded and directed.” Dr. Leona Baumgartner, the first female Commissioner of New York City Department of Health, explained she supported the nomination “wholeheartedly” because “my own experience of over thirty years of seeing what Miss Wald’s work has done for mankind.” Margaret Hickey, a journalist and activist who served as the chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, focused on Wald’s commitment to women’s lives; she argued, “today’s woman with the ballot, a job, perhaps a degree, and her social security, owes a debt of gratitude to Lillian Wald who did so much to win these rights from an opposing world.” The National Association of Social Workers and visiting nurse agencies throughout the country also sent endorsements.

Comparing the committee’s approach to that employed by the National Federation of Business and Professional Woman’s Clubs in its to campaign stretching from 1935 to 1950 to elect Susan B. Anthony is illuminating. Like the campaign for Wald, Anthony’s supporters stressed how her contribution changed the nation and the world, but they portrayed Anthony as a liberator who increased the freedom of American citizens. Her legacy was not just the vote, but, by allowing women to live up to their full potential, helping protect America from the threats of fascism and communism in World World II and the Cold War. The campaign for Wald, in the midst of the social justice and civil rights movements of the 1960s, focused instead on how Wald’s work addressed social inequities and made America not more free, but most just and humane.

Despite the committee’s efforts, Wald came up short in the 1965 election, receiving only 39 votes. Jane Addams, founder of the Chicago settlement house Hull House, was elected, on her second try. Rabinowitz attributed the setback to competition with Addams and to geography, suggesting that the great number of electors from the western United States were more familiar with Addams. That explanation overestimated the number of western electors, but he was correct that they were unlikely to select two women, particularly two who worked in a similar area. Addams was only the ninth woman elected to the hall, the first since Anthony’s election in 1950.

By 1969, the campaign was once again in full swing, with Rabinowitz as chair. The committee continued to gather endorsements from prominent Americans and those involved in causes and organization close to Wald. New York City mayor John Lindsay stressed that celebrating Wald’s commitment to public service had become even more important since 1965, as “events since that time have underscored the importance of honoring those who have made significant contributions to the quality of life in our urban centers,” a vague reference to the financial crises, demographic shifts, and riots American cities had faced in the five years between the elections. A few people lobbied for Wald based on her religion, noting there were no Jewish honorees in the hall. Anne and Edward Spirn of Las Vegas stressed, for instance, that it was appropriate to honor Wald as “many members of the Jewish faith have contributed so much to American democracy.”

In 1970 Wald was elected with 67 votes, along with the physicist Albert Michelson. The New York Times immediately published a condescending article titled “Hall of Fame Lobbying Pays Off,” which noted that Rabinowitz spent a “considerable” amount of money on the effort and stressed she triumphed over “such illustrious countryman as Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington Carver, Louis D. Brandeis, and Adolph S. Ochs.” In another controversy, the press release announcing Wald’s election referred to Wald as a “pioneering social worker” but not a nurse, an omission repeated in the New York Times. The head of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and the chair of the Lehman Program complained; Joan Kaiser, a New York City nurse, wrote both Hall of Fame officials and the Times to note the importance of Wald’s work as a nurse and send an editorial on Wald from the American Journal of Nursing. The Times replied, “Maybe we should have said she was also a nurse, but we certainly meant no disparagement to nurses.” The tempests suggest how seriously the public took the Hall of Fame election, even in its waning days.

A postcard accepting an invitation to the unveiling ceremony, 1971.

A postcard accepting an invitation to the unveiling ceremony, 1971.

Parties interested in the honorees took on the responsibility of raising funds to pay for the busts, a process which could take years. In Wald’s case, however, Rabinowitz contributed $20,000 to the fund, and the sculptor Eleanor Platt soon completed the bust. The unveiling ceremony, help on September 12, 1971, was originally planned for Gould Memorial Library on the University Heights Campus, where the hall held earlier ceremonies. It was moved to Town Hall on 45th Street in Manhattan, however, perhaps because it was becoming more difficult to attract an audience to the Bronx.

The ceremony to unveil Wald’s bust, with 800 people in attendance, highlighted her wide range of influence and emphasized a vision of an inclusive world. Rather than one speaker giving a long speech, five people representing different elements of the Wald’s career spoke briefly: Gilbert Fitzhugh, Chairman of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Helen Hall, executive director of the Henry Street Settlement, Hildegard Peplau, president of the American Nurses Association, Eva Reese, Director of the Visiting Nurse Service, and John Schiff, a banker who had served as the president of the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service and whose father had been a patron of Wald’s. Noting the diversity she saw in the audience, Reese announced, “It seems proper and fitting that the audience should be so composed for Lillian D. Wald was a humanitarian. Her concern was for people—all people everywhere.” At Rabinowitz’s request the Visiting Nurse Service arranged for “an interracial group of nurses” to attend and for a few woman to dress in “early-day uniforms.” The Community Chorus of the Henry Street Settlement performed two musical selections, described by the chorus director as “Va anach nu (sacred service)” and “Ain’t that Good News” (Negro spiritual).” The inclusion of a rabbi, Nathan Perilman, of Temple Emanu-El, was a first for a Hall of Fame unveiling ceremony. An insignia Wald had commissioned while visiting China and Japan graced the cover of the elaborate program. The note inside explains, “She had noticed that Chinese family members all wore the same insignia on their clothing. She wanted an insignia that for the Henry Street Nurses that would signify ‘we are all one family.’” Coinciding with the ceremony, the Museum of the City of New York and Cornell University Medical College opened exhibits on Wald, to further spread the word of her work.

In the introduction to her 2008 Lillian Wald: A Biography, Marjorie Feld writes, “Wald’s election to the Hall of Fame marks a fitting starting point to a biography that charts competing claims on Wald’s work and analyzes Wald’s life alongside how people have remembered it.” Feld is acknowledging the role an exploration of the Hall of Fame nominations and elections can play in understanding an honorees’ legacy. With the Hall of Fame archival collection now open, a valuable resource is available for scholars researching those in the hall, as well as those researching changing ideas of American greatness.

Kate Culkin is a Professor of History at Bronx Community College, CUNY. She is the author of Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography and an Associate Editor of the Harriet Jacobs Family Papers.


Correspondence and clippings regarding the nomination and election of Wald and the unveiling ceremony can be found in several folders in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans Collection. The three publications by the Committee for the Election of Lillian D. Wald to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans are housed in Series 1, Subseries 3, Box 36, Folder 1 (Lillian Wald). The finding aid is available online: Tobar, Cynthia and Allen Thomas. “Hall of Fame for Great Americans Collection, 1894-2008.” Bronx Community College Archives.

Chronopoulos, Themis. “Urban Decline and the Withdrawal of New York University from University Heights, the Bronx.” Bronx County Historical Society Journal XLVI, no. 1 and 2 (2009): 5-24.

Domlick, Sam. “A Hall of Fame, Forgotten and Forlorn.” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009.

Feld, Marjorie. Lillian Wald: A Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Filiaci, Anne. “Lillian Wald—Health Progressive.” Last modified 2016.

Friss, Evan. “From University Heights to Cooperstown: Halls of Fame and American Memory.” Journal of Archival Organization, 3, no. 4 (2005): 87-104.

Nichols, J.B., “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson a Part of the Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame,” Gothamist, Aug. 16, 2017.