It’s not every day that a crowd gathers when cemetery workers erect a headstone, but this is no ordinary memorial. It marks the final resting place for Millie Tunnell.
Born into slavery in Virginia, she moved to Queens after she was emancipated. She purchased a family plot at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens. But when she was buried there in 1896, there was no marker.
Carl Ballenas is the president of The Friends of Maple Grove, which is a historical society connected to the cemetery.
"After 125 years, we were determined to mark her grave," he says.
The Friends of Maple Grove joined forces with the The Daughters of the American Revolution, and students from The Kew Forest School put their heads and their hearts together to honor a woman that history forgot.
"She was quite a celebrity. After she reached 100 years and she was able to thread a needle at the age of 109, her memory was sharp." Ballenas says.
Her memory attracted the attention of local reporters, who wrote numerous articles about the "colored woman who met President George Washington." When she turned 110, they wrote about the "old lady who was the oldest resident of Jamaica." Millie Tunnell died at the age of 111.
Students learned everything they could about Tunnell’s legacy, and 16-year-old Annie Vaca created the winning design for the memorial.
"Giving Millie Tunnell a face and like a background, and even though we know all this about her, it's just important for her to feel like she wasn't forgotten and that she'll always live on," Vaca says.
Leslie Wickham, whose roots extend back more than 300 years in this country, was also on hand for the event and she encouraged her fellow members with "Daughters of the American Revolution" to pay for the headstone.
"We are all a product of our ancestors, and it helps us understand who we are," Wickham says.
In a cemetery filled with Civil War soldiers and 9/11 heroes, Millie Tunnell’s legacy is now forever enshrined. She was a mother of nine children, and it’s hoped that some of her living descendants will one day discover the story of this American woman who made her presence known when slavery tried to silence her.
Currently, none of her descendants have come forward. Ballenas hopes the publicity about her new memorial will reach them.
Ballenas gets emotional as he thinks about her legacy.
"We say her name - there's a 3,000-year-old Egyptian proverb, 'To speak the name of the dead is to make them alive again.' And so Millie Tunnell, Millie Tunnell, Millie Tunnell, and now we'll never forget her name," he said.