Greenwood Heights

‘Women Who Walked Ahead’ at Green-Wood Cemetery

March 20, 2018 By Lauren Magnuson Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Green-Wood’s historic front gates. Photo by Art Presson

In honor of Women’s History Month, Green-Wood Cemetery is reaching back into its long history to celebrate the pioneering women who are buried on its grounds.  

The cemetery will host a special trolley tour on March 31 called “Women Who Walked Ahead” and will visit the graves, both marked and unmarked, of the forgotten women who hold notable places in New York City’s history.

Eugenia Farrar was the first person to ever sing on the radio. Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery

The tour will feature women pioneers in science, arts and activism who led inspiring lives, according to the tour’s leader Allison Meier. Despite their influence, many of these women’s stories may not be found in history books.

“Some of the women have been on [Green-Wood] tours. Others have been more forgotten,” said Meier, who has been leading tours at Green-Wood since 2011.

Only two of the women on the tour are on the official Green-Wood map, Meier said. Those include Lola Montez, who was most famous for her controversial “spider dance,” and Susan McKinney Steward, the first African-American woman physician in New York state.

Meier said that she’s had to dig deeper into many women’s stories on her own because “these pioneering women, for whatever reason — their stories weren’t recorded as well or as actively as their male counterparts.”

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Lola Montez, who was most famous for her controversial “spider dance.” Photo courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery

One stop on the tour, Camilla Urso, was the first woman to perform as a concert violinist in the U.S. Meier said that Urso held incredible influence during her lifetime as a performer and inspiration to other women musicians, but that her burial site wasn’t easy to find.

“When I tried to find [Urso’s] grave in the cemetery, I had to actually search for her husband to find out where she was buried,” said Meier.

Urso, a musical prodigy, was nevertheless scrutinized for her physical appearance and facial expressions in reviews, Meier said.

“Even though it’s an old story, it still resonates in the present in terms of how we treat women in entertainment,” Meier said.

Some women on the tour were never given a grave marker at all. Such is the case with Caroline Weldon, a late 19th-century artist who traveled to Dakota Territory to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull. Her story was the inspiration for the 2017 film “Woman Walks Ahead,” starring Jessica Chastain.

She’s significant enough that there’s a movie about her now,” Meier said. “But when she died, she was impoverished,” and therefore her grave went unmarked.

That should change soon for Weldon now that the cemetery has begun a special project to recognize notable figures with unmarked graves, said Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman.

“[Caroline Weldon] is part of this effort to mark graves of people who are particularly interesting as pioneers,” said Richman, adding that the artist and activist is just second on the project’s list to receive a gravestone.

Women can end up without a gravesite if they died without any remaining immediate family, Meier said. Such was the case with Eugenia Farrar, who in 1907 became the first person to ever sing on the radio. After her death in 1966, her ashes were stored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for decades before Green-Wood reserved a niche for her remains in 2010.

“Picking graves that have a beautiful story and memorial is really special too,” Meier said of Farrar, who was transferred to an urn that has the song she first sang on the radio, “I Love You Truly,” inscribed into it.

More than 570,000 people are buried at Green-Wood, where Richman said tours began in 1991. When there’s any occasion to spotlight a particular area of history, “we try to seize that opportunity,” said Richman, who himself lead a tour to recognize Black History Month in February.

He added that it can be a challenge to highlight women’s stories when so much of recorded history focuses on men.

“We’re always looking for a different spin on things and being able to talk about pioneers,” Richman said. “And this tour allows us to do that.”

Meier said that she’s passionate about finding ways to make cemeteries accessible and engaging for the public in meaningful ways.

“[Green-Wood] is a real cross-section of New York’s past,” Meier said. “When you can actually talk to people and share it with them on a hopefully beautiful day, it just brings a new meaning to it and hopefully to a new audience.”

 

“Women Who Walked Ahead” will be held on Saturday, March 31 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at Green-Wood Cemetery. Tickets are $20 for members of Green-Wood and BHS, and $25 for non-members.

 

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