Aug 25, 2023 - Culture

New public art highlights Boston's history-making Black women

The late Bishop Barbara Harris, left, poses for a photo in the pulpit of a church, and illustrator Kamali Thornell, right, poses in front of a banner of Harris he designed for the Black Women Lead project.

Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2009 (left) and artist Kamali Thornell in front of a banner of Harris he designed. Photo: Angela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images; Steph Solis/Axios

Hundreds of banners featuring iconic Black Boston women will soon line the sign posts of Blue Hill Avenue.

What's happening: 212 banners highlighting these historic change makers are scheduled to go up next month in Dorchester and Roxbury as part of the new Black Women Lead public art project.

  • The mile-long display will feature women of the present and the past, including Phillis Wheatley, considered the first African American author of a published book of poetry, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and lesser-known historical figures.

Why it matters: Many of the women on this list have made history but aren't necessarily covered in history textbooks.

What they're saying: "One of the complaints I've heard was like, 'we don't have any role models.' Well, we have role models. We just never learned about it in school," Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets and the project's organizer, tells Axios.

  • He worked with a team of researchers and artists to compile the list and design the art.
  • He said he pursued the project in memory of his grandmother and his great-aunt, who graduated from college during the Great Depression.

One of the women featured is Karen Miller, who became Boston's first Black woman firefighter in 1985.

  • She told Axios in an interview that children "need to know and realize there are still firsts out there and firsts to come, because there are a lot of places where we have not been able to crack the glass ceiling."

Pressley, the first Black woman on the Boston City Council and in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, told Axios that Boston's Black women "long shaped the course of history as defenders of democracy, innovators, strategists, organizers, justice-seekers and so much more."

State of play: The project, which secured funding from the Patriots Foundation, is also getting help from Northeastern University and the Boston Public Library to create online biographies for the women.

  • The banners will remain up at least until the winter, Gaskin said.

Here are some of the other Bostonians set to be featured:

👗 Alice Casneau, a 19th century dressmaker and member of the Women's Era Club.

💇🏾‍♀️ Olive Lee Benson, a 20th century hair stylist.

⚖️ Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell, the first Black woman to hold the position.

✊🏾 Ella Little-Collins, a civil rights activist and Malcolm X's half-sister

📚 Florida Ruffin Ridley, a 19th century activist and one of the first Black women teachers in the Boston area.

ğŸŽ¨ Ekua Holmes, a children's book illustrator and the 2013 recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Arts.


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