By Gina Martinez
Queens Library celebrated Black History Month by honoring 19th century Flushing philanthropist and educator Mary Shaw.
On Monday the Flushing branch held a ceremony that included a portrayal of one of her grammar school classes, music performances and the unveiling painted portrait of Shaw by local artist Eddie Abrams that will be permanently displayed at the library.
Queens Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott, Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) and teachers and students from nearby Flushing schools, including P.S. 244, attended the ceremony.
President Walcott said Queens Library was proud to introduce a new generation to an extraordinary woman who was far ahead of her time.
“Although she lived before the Queens Library system existed,” he said. “She embodied our mission to provide opportunities for intellectual and personal growth to all people, regardless of their background or circumstances, and build strong communities.”
Shaw was the principal of a public grammar school for African American children called the “Colored School at Flushing.” According to Walcott, upon her death in 1905, she bequeathed $1,000 to the Flushing Free Library, which at the time was a standalone institution that had yet to be absorbed by the Queens Library system and was incorporated two years later. Walcott said the money was used to purchase books for a reference section at that library, including “The Book of Decorative Furniture: Its Form, Colour and History,”by Edwin Foley, which still exist.
Walcott said that although Queens Library was long aware of Mrs. Shaw and her contribution to Flushing Free Library, very few specifics were known about her life until two members of the board of directors of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens took an interest in her story after hearing about plans for the remembrance ceremony. The board’s president Carl Ballenas, who also works as a social studies teacher at Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, worked with students and coworkers to find out more about Shaw.
They discovered that Shaw, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1851, married to John W.A. Shaw, a noted journalist who was involved with Democratic politics in New York City and became one of the first black Tammany Hall office holders. They discovered that Shaw went on to become the principal of the Colored Public School of Flushing and resigned in 1894 after she received a $75,000 inheritance from a close family friend. Their research found that Shaw died in 1905, and left behind an estate of $50,000.
She bequeathed $38,000 to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University. At the time it was the largest bequest ever made by an African American.Their research also found that according to her will, Mrs. Shaw left $2,000 to a home for aging African Americans in Manhattan, $1,000 to a Flushing hospital, $1,000 to Flushing Free Library and $50 to her husband, who was living in London at the time of her death.
Ballenas said researching Shaw was an opportunity for his middle school students in the Aquinas Honors Society to help uncover more details about Mrs. Shaw.
“I am always looking for projects to help spark my students’ love for uncovering the lives of people they have never heard of before who have a connection to Queens,” he said.
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart