A memorial service was held Sunday for former Queens Borough President Helen Marshall in the cultural center at Borough Hall dedicated in her honor just months ago. Elected officials both serving and retired attended the ceremony and delivered remarks remembering Marshall’s qualities of leadership and friendship.
Marshall died in her Palm Desert, Calif., home on March 4, at 87.
Marshall, born in 1929 to Guyanese immigrant parents in Manhattan, began her career in politics after leaving her life as an educator. She was elected to the state Assembly in the 35th District in 1982, a seat now occupied by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), where she served five terms.
“Helen and I started long ago on Northern Boulevard in Corona, a place half the people didn’t want to be. But she chose it as a place to do and begin her work, and, fortunately, I had the good common sense to follow,” Aubry said. “And because I’m part of it, I’m still there. I never left. Every step on that boulevard is a memory of things that we’d done and fought for and accomplishments.”
Ticking off a list of locations and events, Aubrey said, “All of them are places that remind me of how tremendous of a fighter she was.”
Marshall would go on to serve in the City Council in 1991, the seat now occupied by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-Corona), until 2001. In the Council Marshall was chair of the Higher Education Committee, co-chair of the Black and Latino Caucus and a member of the Housing and Buildings, Environmental Protection, and Women’s Issues committees.
In 2001, Marshall became the first African-American elected borough president of Queens where she served until the end of 2013 and advocated for better education, libraries, quality healthcare and senior care.
She was preceded by Claire Shulman, Queens’ first woman borough president, who served for four terms. Shulman remembered her friendship with Marshall in a story about the trip the two had made to Israel. Shulman and Marshall had served on community boards together.
“The year is 1986, Helen and I went to Israel,” Shulman said, recalling an emotional visit to the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem. “The group continued on, leaving me behind. As I stood grieving at the wall, I felt an arm around me. It was Helen. She was the only one who understood and she let me know.”
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) remembered Marshall as a force in city government and a leader who challenged expectations.
“She was on the cutting edge of the women’s movement, of the changes of accepting women in leadership positions,” Maloney said. The congresswoman had served as a staffer for Marshall during her time in the Assembly and was later as an elected official in the City Council alongside her.
Also speaking were current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and former Mayor David Dinkins.
Her grandsons Chasen and Chandler Marshall were in attendance alongside about 10 other members of the Marshall family.
The Helen Marshall Cultural Center is an 11,000-square-foot atrium at Queens Borough Hall. The project cost about $23 million, according to Katz. Construction of the space was completed over the summer and had official dedication ceremony in August.