In my opinion, what isn’t in the Hall of Fame is as interesting as what is actually there. The Hall of Fame has sculptures of historical figures, each with a plaque describing or perhaps quoting the personage. That’s all there is: no audio tour, no QR Reader, no pamphlets. To learn more about why each individual is in the Hall of Fame, you either need a guide or a smartphone that might find the Bronx Community College’s fifteen-year-old Hall of Fame website. One has to wonder how did visitors approach the site when it first opened? Did visitors pause at each monument and contemplate every figure?
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was opened in 1900, inspired by King Ludwig I of Bavaria’s Walhalla in Germany. It’s located inside the campus of Bronx Community College in University Heights, which belonged to New York University until 1974. The Hall of Fame should be understood as a monument of and for the elite. I think Greg Young of the Bowery Boys website describes it well: “With America flush with Gilded Age wealth, the Hall of Fame was intended to be an American pantheon, a modern response to the god-filled marble hallways of Europe….you are thrown back into a mix of turn-of-the-century scholarly aesthetic and the belief of equating the American movement with ancient Roman and Greek forefathers.”
How were figures selected to be in the Hall of Fame? For decades, when the site was more widely known, the Hall of Fame had a complicated selection process involving letter writing campaigns and a panel of voters representing every state. Universities and organizations actively campaigned to have their local heroes or recently deceased leaders included in the Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame’s demographics, as you might expect, heavily skews towards upper-class white men and women with ancestry from Western Europe. There are no Native Americans here. Booker T. Washington (pictured above) was the first African-American chosen and he was only elected in 1945. David Farragut is the lone Hispanic figure. I doubt there is any figure here whose family immigrated to the United States after 1880.
The most controversial inductees to the Hall of Fame from a contemporary perspective were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, generals for the Confederate States of America. Lee was inducted in 1923 and Jackson in 1957, due to a campaign led by the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy. Not coincidentally, the fifties was a time when many Confederate monuments were erected in the South as a hostile response to the Civil Rights movement. It’s remarkable that at the same time when many African-Americans were moving from places like Charlotte to the Bronx because of political, economic and educational discrimination, Stonewall Jackson was being honored in this liberal borough.
In 2017, Lee and Jackson’s sculptures were taken down as part of a national movement of removing monuments associated with the Confederate States and white supremacy. I think removing these statues was appropriate, but the issue of who should remain in the Hall of Fame is complex. If being considered racist by 21st century standards is a reason to be removed from the Hall of Fame, half of the sculptures would have to be removed. Now that Lee and Jackson are gone, I think the Hall of Fame should be left alone. Adding a sculpture for Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks will not make the place less stodgy or more equal. If it was up to me, I would expand the Hall of Fame and make the current part a section of a larger public space with contemporary art installations in ‘dialogue’ with the original sculptures and what they represent.