Thurgood Marshall statue unveiled in Rockland
A ceremony was held to unveil the Rockland County Thurgood Marshall Human Rights Monument near the county courthouse in New City Sept. 23, 2021.
Peter Carr, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Rockland County honored the late civil rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on Thursday with a life-size statue celebrating his legacy and efforts to desegregate one area school nearly 80 years ago.
The ceremony was also intended as a reminder to continue a push for racial equity in education across the nation.
The Thurgood Marshall Human Rights Monument in New City memorializes the NAACP Legal Defense Fund founder’s work not only on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that ended legal public school segregation in the U.S., but also his advocacy in Rockland as a young attorney.
He led the integration of Hillburn schools in 1943.
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The bronze statue is located in the Dutch Garden outside the Rockland County Courthouse, which also has a courtroom named after Marshall.
“As we unveil this monument, his life will always stand before all of us as a symbol of righteous indignation against those things that keep us from realizing our truest potential,” said Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College and a former attorney. “I believe he would challenge us today to continue to face and fight indifference, apathy, fear, hatred and mistrust.”
Hillburn schools were one of the last to be integrated in New York. At the time, Black children attended Brook Street Elementary School, which had no library, playground or indoor plumbing. White children went to the Main School.
Three years after founding the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1940, Marshall, then 35, led a boycott with local Black families for their children to attend Hillburn’s Main School. He petitioned the New York State Board of Education for the village’s elementary schools.
In fall 1943, the commissioner ordered the Brook School to close, sending Black children to the Main School.
The case was a precursor to Marshall’s most famous court win, Brown v. Board of Education, a decade later. The U.S. Supreme Court found the “separate but equal” precedent used to maintain segregated schools was invalid.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to a federal appeals court. President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1967.
Marshall became the first Black justice to serve on the court, helping usher in a series of decisions expanding civil rights. When the civil rights movement ended, he wrote scathing dissents on rollbacks of the movement by courts.
Marshall served on the court until 1991. He passed away two years later at the age of 84. He now has monuments in his honor across the country, including in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, his hometown.
In the present day, New York state has the worst school segregation in the U.S., according to a June report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Ninety percent of Black students attended predominantly nonwhite schools, the report found, and two out of three Black students attended intensely segregated schools that are almost entirely nonwhite. New York was the most segregated state for Black students.
Hillburn’s Main School, now the headquarters of the Suffern Central School District, has been on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places since 2015. A part of Route 17 was also named after Marshall when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to name the stretch of roadway in 2019.
Rockland leaders broke ground on the Marshall monument last October. On Thursday, former Rockland County Supreme Court Judge William K. Nelson and County Executive Ed Day unveiled the statue, with Rockland County Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier leading the ceremony.
Marshall’s work is a reminder to continue fighting for human rights in Rockland and across the U.S., Day said.
“While this was just one battle of the hundreds that Thurgood Marshall fought across this nation to end segregation, it was a defining moment in the history of Rockland County,” he said. “As has often been the case in our history, what started in Rockland grew and compounded.”
The Rockland monument features a young Marshall, bespectacled with a briefcase and wearing a bow tie. Behind the statue, Marshall’s words are inscribed on black marble: “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.”
The monument cost $186,800, with $119,000 for Cornerstone Restoration Corp. as the bidded contractor.
Lynn Liverton, a Hawaii-based sculptor, was commissioned to design Marshall’s statue for $86,800. She previously created a statue of fallen Marine Megan Leavy, of Rockland, and her dog Rex, in Haverstraw Bay Park.
Liverton said she focused on the quiet moments of Marshall’s life, such as the conversations he had with families seeking better opportunities for their children.
“I was seeking a personal connection to the man,” she said.
Growing up in Rockland County, Virginia Norfleet, CEO and founder of the Haverstraw African American Connection, said she wouldn’t hear about the contributions of African Americans from the area.
She said the Marshall statue symbolizes pride and inclusion for Rockland County’s history, and a reminder to continue pushing forward.
“Let this not be the end of what we do,” she said, “know that this is the beginning of a journey – a journey that’s long-awaited.”
The Journal News/lohud chronicled systemic racism in New York City’s northern suburbs. Read them here.
The Journal News reporters Robert Brum, Nancy Cutler and Steve Lieberman contributed to this story.
Eduardo Cuevas covers diversity, equity and inclusion in Westchester and Rockland counties. He can be reached at EMCuevas1@lohud.com and followed on Twitter @eduardomcuevas.
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