Gone but not forgotten: Cemetery tour highlights trailblazing females buried in Bklyn

Gone but not forgotten: Cemetery tour highlights trailblazing females buried in Bklyn
Photo by Taylor Balkom

These women were ahead of their time!

A borough historian will close out Women’s History Month by leading curious minds to the graves of 10 pioneering women at Green-Wood Cemetery on March 31. The “Women Who Walked Ahead” tour will include stops at the final resting places of trailblazing females in medicine, music, the arts, and activism — among other fields — according to its guide and creator, who said she sought to include a diverse group of both famous and lesser-known ladies.

“I tried to find women who were buried there who were significant in their careers and their times,” said Allison Meier, who lives in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and has been giving tours of the cemetery since 2011. “Some of them might be familiar, and some might be more obscure. We tried to make it a mix of both.”

Grave-goers will haunt the plots of local leaders, including the borough’s first black female doctor, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, who was also the first black woman to earn a medical doctorate in the state; the first female detective in the city and the country, Isabella Goodwin; and the sculptor who created Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain on the distant isle of Manhattan, Emma Stebbins.

Other women included on the tour left their legacies on the national and even international scenes, including abolitionist and prison-reform advocate Abigail Hopper Gibbons; singer Eugenia Farrar — who, in 1907, was the first woman to sing on the radio, and now rests in an urn; and artist-activist Caroline Weldon, who worked with Native American leader Sitting Bull and was immortalized by Jessica Chastain in the upcoming film, “Woman Walks Ahead,” from which the tour drew its name.

But ironically, the activist’s grave is unmarked — a situation that’s not uncommon for the era, according to Meier, who said many women were buried under their husbands’ names back then, and others, such as Weldon, couldn’t afford markers, which underscores the importance of a tour like this one.

“It’s interesting, because there’s a lot more beneath the ground at a cemetery than you can see, so even though it looks incredibly packed with graves, there’s a lot more [unseen] history there,” she said.

Another historian at the burial ground said he estimates half of the cemetery’s more than 570,000 graves are unmarked, and that many of those that are marked reflect the reality that women were often identified by their relationships to men rather than as individuals — even in death.

“I think the gravestones do reflect a patriarchal society in the 19th century — they’ll often say ‘wife of,’ and if you see a bust in the cemetery, it’s more likely to reflect a man, whereas if a woman is buried there, it’s more likely to be a generic angel,” said Jeff Richman.

Meier said she came up with the tour before the New York Times debuted its “Overlooked” project earlier this month — which honored important women whose deaths the paper ignored in their time, including Emily Roebling, who saw the Brooklyn Bridge to completion — and that she is glad to continue the tradition of honoring legendary local ladies.

“There’s more attention being paid to the women who were absent from our popular history, and there’s definitely a lot of room to highlight women in New York City,” she said.

“Women Who Walked Ahead” tour at Green-Wood Cemetery (500 25th St. at Fifth Avenue in Greenwood Heights, www.green-wood.com). March 31 at 1:30 pm. $25.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.