Queens Library Honors 19th Century Black Philanthropist


In celebration of Black History Month, the Flushing Branch of the Queens Library held a ceremony to celebrate the life of Mary Shaw, a 19th century grammar school teacher at the Colored School at Flushing.


After her death in 1905, Shaw left $1,000 to the Flushing Free Library, which was then a standalone institution. The money, which is equivalent to approximately $26,000 in 2018, was spent on new books in the library’s reference section. The single book remaining from that purchase is The Book of Decorative Furniture: Its Form, Colour and History by Edwin Foley.

“Although she lived before the Queens Library system existed, 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. We are grateful to the many people who worked so hard to make this day possible, and bring more information about Mary Shaw to light,” said Queens Library President and CEO Dennis Walcott.

Little was known about the life of Shaw until two board members for the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens became curious about her story. Carl Ballenas, president of the board and a social studies teacher at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica; Helen Day, the board’s senior vice president; and Leslie Wickham, a genealogist and historian, picked up the mantle and discovered her story.

Ballenas also engaged the help of his Aquinas Honors Society students.

“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,” Ballenas said.

Together, they discovered that Shaw was born in Pennsylvania in 1851 and married John W.A. Shaw. Her husband was a celebrated journalist of the time, and was involved with New York City politics. He was also the first black officer at Tammany Hall, an influential political organization of the time.

Shaw was a highly educated teacher and principal. She retired in 1894 after she inherited $75,000 from her family’s close friend, Catharine Ten Eyck, who lived on MacDougal Street in Manhattan.

Upon her death in 1905, her estate was worth $50,000, and she left $38,000, the largest donation made by an African American at the time, to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which is now Tuskegee University.

Her will was contested by relatives of Eyck, but was upheld in court. Shaw also left $2,000 to a home for aging African Americans in Manhattan, $1,000 to a Flushing hospital, a donation to the library and $50 to her husband, who was living in London at the time of her death.

At the celebration, Walcott presented a portrait of Shaw by New York City artist Eddie Abrams. The artwork will be on permanent display at the library.

During the presentation, Walcott was accompanied by Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), library staff, members of the northeast Queens community and teachers and pupils from two area schools.
Students from PS 244 performed a portrayal of a class taught by Shaw with Aida Vernon, an attorney and member of the Briarwood/Kew Gardens Lions Club, in the role of Shaw.

Reach reporter Jon Cronin via email at jcronin@queenstribune.com or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 125.

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