BY NATHAN DUKE
Helen Marshall, the first African American borough president of Queens who also served the borough at the city and state level, died on Saturday in California. She was 87 years old.
Marshall, who served three terms as the Queens borough president, was remembered by colleagues as an advocate for the borough’s schools and libraries.
“Helen Marshall was a larger-than-life figure in the civic life of Queens and the state of New York,” said Melinda Katz, the current Queens borough president who succeeded Marshall. “During her decades in public life, Helen fought tenaciously to improve our children’s schools, to address seemingly intractable quality of life issues and to secure a fair share of city resources for Queens. As the first African American borough president of Queens and only the second woman to be elected to the position, Helen was a trailblazer who inspired many to pursue public service.”
Marshall was born in the Bronx in 1929 and graduated with a B.A. in education from CUNY Queens College. For eight years, she was a teacher before becoming the first director of Corona’s Langston Hughes Library in 1969. She married Donald Marshall— who died in January— and they had two children, Donald Jr. and Agnes Marie.
In 1974, Marshall entered politics as a Democratic district leader and, from 1983 to 1991, she represented the state Assembly’s 35th district. She then became a member of the City Council, representing Queens’ 21st district from 1992 to 2001.
In 2002, Marshall was elected as the Queens borough president, an office that she held for three terms. She retired from politics in 2013 and moved to California.
As borough president, Marshall was a supporter of Queens’ arts and culture and aimed to make the borough a tourist destination. Once the director of a library branch, she prioritized Queens’ library system during her years as borough president.
“Queens Library would not be the world-class library system it is today without Helen,” said Dennis Walcott, the former city schools chancellor and current president and CEO of the Queens Library. “Her passion for libraries drove her to secure a record amount of capital funding to upgrade, expand or improve many of the 62 libraries throughout our system and to continue to open new ones.”
In 2003, Marshall created the Queens General Assembly, a group that drew delegates from across the borough’s 14 community boards with an aim to represent Queens’ diverse populations.
“In her more than three decades of public service, she broke barriers, embraced the strength of our diversity and guided our borough through unprecedented growth,” U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) said. “She always fought hard to ensure we got our fair share and she is leaving behind an incredible legacy of helping those in need.”
Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) said that Marshall also fought to improve the borough’s transportation options and was a champion of Queens’ schools and parks.
“Even though she was not technically a teacher anymore, she taught myself and other leaders throughout the borough what it meant to serve and we all continue to be thankful for it,” Miller said.