An Unknown History of Central Park: The Story of Hettie Anderson and the Sherman Monument

Editor’s Note:

As you enter Central Park from the bustling thoroughfare of Fifth Avenue, your gaze is likely drawn to the imposing figure presiding over the entrance—the towering monument of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman. Crafted by the skilled hands of Dublin-born, New York–based sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, this work of art is not just a tribute to a renowned military leader: it’s a gateway to the rich history of New York City’s famed backyard.

In 1891, a committee comprising Sherman’s friends and members of the City’s Chamber of Commerce set out to advocate for a public monument honoring him. The project faced delays and debates over its location, but by 1903, the vision became a reality. Grand Army Plaza, with its open expanse, was chosen as the ideal setting to showcase the 24-foot-high statue of Sherman astride his horse, Ontario, accompanied by the allegorical figure of Victory.

Behind the grandeur of the iconic monument lies a lesser-known story—that of Hettie Anderson, an African-American woman whose legacy has been largely overlooked.

In the article below, genealogist and historian Karen Strickland uncovers the unknown history behind one of Central Park’s most celebrated works of art and the remarkable contributions of individuals like Hettie Anderson.

I was formally introduced to Hettie Anderson in the fall of 2020 by art journalist Eve Kahn, who asked me for research assistance. I was unaware then that Hettie and I had parallel upbringings in Columbia, South Carolina; now, after years of research, I feel like I have known her all my life.

A September 17, 1899, article in the NY Journal News called Harriette “Hettie” [Hattie] Eugenia Anderson "the most famous model in the United States." She was also the first female African-American artists’ model of her generation.

Explore the captivating story of Hettie Anderson, an extraordinary African-
American model from the Gilded Age. Her legacy lives on in the striking figure
of Victory at Grand Army Plaza in Central Park.

Hettie was born around 1873, during the Reconstruction period; her family members were designated as “free people of color” in the U.S. Federal Census of Columbia. They were middle-class, well-established people in the city, and they played a significant role in the community; their professions included politician, educator, and physician, as well as artisan trades such as seamstress, musician, and brick mason. Hettie’s family also helped organize St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first African-American Episcopal Protestant parish in Columbia. The trustees and members of the parish were prominent leaders and members of the South Carolina Legislature, including Henry E. Hayne, the South Carolina Secretary of State; Andrew Wallace and William M. Taylor, construction business owners and Hettie’s uncles; Francis L. Cardozo, South Carolina Treasurer and the Secretary of State prior to Hayne; and Walter Jones, private secretary to Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain.

Hettie lived in the city’s Arsenal Hill community, across from the Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery, at the corner of Taylor and Wayne Streets. The governor’s mansion was two blocks northeast from her home, and her neighbors were William Beverly Nash, State Senator and delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1868 and 1876; Walter Jones; and Chris Haynesworth, a barber.

Hettie Anderson

The Columbia City Directory documented Hettie and her mother’s residence at Wayne Street until about 1891, and they were listed under “c,” for colored. The U.S. Federal Census listed Hettie’s mother in Columbia as mulatto from 1870; in 1880, both Hettie and Caroline were listed as mulatto.

Hettie lived with her mother, Caroline Scott, all her life. It is unknown exactly why they moved to New York, but around the end of Reconstruction, many African-American families affected by contentious relations in the South, including Jim Crow laws, were moving north, where the era’s impact was less evident.

Finding Success in New York’s Gilded Age

Hettie’s success came in New York City during the subsequent Gilded Age, known for its opulence and dramatic economic disparity. At the time, approximately 1% of the U.S. population was extremely wealthy; chief among the elites were Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad magnate; John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil Company; and Andrew Carnegie, a steel magnate and philanthropist whose gifts often went toward building libraries across the United States.

In 1899, while living in a tenement at 698 Amsterdam Avenue, Caroline gave Hettie the South Carolina property where she grew up as a child. At the time, much of their family lived in the New York area: Hettie’s brother was in New Jersey, and several other family members were in the city itself.

Hettie (who was previously documented as Hattie) attended the Art Students’ League on West 57th Street, where her instructors were well-known sculptors and artists such as Daniel Chester French, who created the Lincoln Memorial and used her as inspiration for The Spirit of Life; John La Farge, who used her for his mural “Athens”; and Saint-Gaudens, who created the General William Tecumseh Sherman monument and the $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle gold piece.

Ex His Sherman Monument 1923 NYHS PR181 b 02 f 23 006 01

Central Park’s Sherman monument in Grand Army Plaza, circa 1923. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

Hettie is also said to have posed for John Q.A. Ward’s Dewey Arch; Anders Zorn's etching, “Saint-Gaudens and his Model”; La Farge’s mural at Bowdoin College; and several of French’s statues: a bronze relief on the Boston Public Library’s door called “Truth”; a stone statue at Tranquility Cemetery in New Jersey; and a stone statue, The Spirit of Achievement, in Atlanta, Georgia’s Westview Cemetery.

Saint-Gaudens wrote in his memoir, “She has a trace of negro blood in her veins … certainly the handsomest model I have ever seen of either sex, and I have seen a great many.”

“The Power of Posing Patiently”

It wasn’t just Hettie’s looks that compelled the artists; they enjoyed working with her because, Saint-Gaudens said, she had the “power of posing patiently, steadily and thoroughly in the spirit one wished,” a rare quality that is essential for sculptors. The Buffalo Commercial called Hettie “a charming young woman whose beauty of form and face [grace] make her in constant demand among artists.” Hettie was so desired that, for a time, she could choose which artist she worked with. In a letter, Saint-Gaudens wrote: “I need her badly,” and the New York Journal and Advertiser declared in 1899, “There is nothing in Greek sculpture finer than her figure.”

Hettie retired sometime in her fifties, and despite her popularity among artists, time forgot about Hettie. She died on January 10, 1938. Her death certificate documents her as a single, white model.

Hettie’s grandfather, H [Henry] Lee, had purchased 12 family plots at Elmwood Cemetery in South Carolina. Established in 1854, Elmwood was an all-white cemetery, apart from a few indentured servants. Despite that, internment records show Hettie and her mother are buried at Elmwood in an unmarked grave; it is unknown who is buried in the other 10 plots Lee purchased.

Honoring an Overlooked Legacy

Under my leadership as chair of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, an archeologist was hired to do a Ground Penetrating Radar survey. The survey would detect if unmarked graves were interred in all 12 plots belonging to Hettie’s grandfather: they were. The commission collaborated with the South Carolina Numismatic Association and purchased a gravestone for Hettie Anderson.

As chair of the commission, I completed the research and application for a South Carolina Historical Marker for Hettie. The marker, located on the 1600 block of Wayne Street, was unveiled on April 25, 2023. Among attendants were Mayor Daniel Rickenmann; Councilman Edward McDowell, Jr.; Will Gragg, president of the Midlands Coin Club; and myself.

The author, Karen G. Strickland, uncovering Hettie’s grave marker.

In March 2024, the South Carolina State Senate and Richland County Councilmen of Columbia presented a concurrent resolution that honored Hettie’s achievements as part of an unveiling ceremony. The City of Columbia also has plans for a resolution celebrating her in the future.

Researching Hettie, I recognized similarities between her and many Columbia residents. We belonged to the same church: the one her family members helped organize. My family lived in the Arsenal Hill community, same as Hettie. The only primary school for African-Americans throughout Jim Crow in Columbia, which Hettie probably attended, was the same one my family members attended. And from those beginnings, Hettie Anderson made a significant impact in the world of art.

Karen G. Strickland is a genealogist and historian based in South Carolina.

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