Marshall was the first black borough president of Queens and served for three terms. Prior to a career in politics, the Bronx native was a teacher. She joined the State Assembly in 1982 and later served in the City Council from 1993 until 2001.
She passed away on Saturday, March 4, in Palm Desert, California, at the age of 87.
Throughout her career, she allocated more than $113 million dollars for children and seniors to benefit from the parks in the borough. Marshall also spent approximately $81 million on libraries across the borough, even becoming the first director of the Langston Hughes Library in Corona.
“She understood that education was something that no one could ever take away from you,” said Borough President Melinda Katz.
Former borough president Claire Shulman, who served from 1986 to 2002, added that Marshall’s legacy would be remembered through the children’s libraries.
“She did whatever she could for the kids,” Schulman said. “With a twinkle in her eye, she always made sure that every budget had funds allocated for the kids.”
But her compassion didn’t stop with children. During a trip to Israel in 1986 with a group of elected officials, they stopped at a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
An eternal flame was lit as a memorial to those who had lost their life and Shulman was overcome with emotion. While the rest of the group continued on their way, Marshall refused to leave Shulman alone.
“As I stood grieving, I felt an arm around me,” Shulman said, “It was Helen. She was the only one who understood and I will never forget her. She was one of a kind.”
Representative Carolyn Maloney first met Marshall when she was a staffer and Marshall was in the state legislature. Maloney considered her a role model, especially since there were such few women in elected office at the time.
Marshall and Maloney also served together in the City Council.
“She was truly on the cutting edge of the women's movement of accepting the changes of women in leadership positions,” Maloney said.
She recalled when Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate, and Marshall and Maloney joined forces to hold the press accountable for the sexist questions aimed at Clinton.
The stunt changed the way women were asked questions in politics, Maloney stated, adding that she never heard those types of questions asked to a female candidate again.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz described a more personal side to her friend. She recounted how Marshall would call the Rockaways the “West Hamptons” of Queens, and how after a City Council meeting one day, Marshall offered to drive Koslowitz home.
“Somehow, we ended up at Lord & Taylor’s,” Koslowitz recalled.
Marshall’s grandson, Chandler, said that she was his inspiration. He learned self-confidence through her as a child, and he thanked her for teaching him to donate his time and money to those in need.
“She loved Queens,” he said. “She would drive me and my brother around the borough and it seemed like everyone knew her. She was always interacting, entertaining and encouraging everyone around her.”
Bringing people together was a dream that Marshall brought to life with the Queens General Assembly. The group is made up of delegates from each of the borough’s community boards who represent all types of races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and sexual orientation.
Madhulika Khandelwal, a member of the General Assembly, said that while people are always talking about things like race and religion, Marshall went one step further by connecting people through their hearts.
“Helen truly created a new family for all of us,” Khandelwal said. “She has a lot to do with this new identity, new relationships, new networks and this feeling of belonging that she created across different people.”