It all started with some old bed sheets on a November afternoon. I took my kids to the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington, an event held each year in Washington Heights. While my son was doing military drills with a long stick, my daughter was busy at the crafts table. Here, using donated sheets, she transformed herself into Molly Corbin by means of an apron, a shawl, and mob cap. She was ready for the Revolution.
Margaret Corbin kept the last cannon firing at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776. She had come to aid in the defense of New York with her husband, John, arriving from their farm in Virginia. When John fell at his cannon, Molly took over his post, keeping the piece firing against General Howe’s troops. She was wounded, and placed on a wagon for the three-day trip to the patriot stronghold of Philadelphia. Here, Molly nursed the wounded while her own wounds healed. She never regained use of her left arm, having taken three grape shot to the shoulder. Molly later joined the Invalid Corps, and continued to serve in the cause of American freedom.
Like Molly Corbin, Alex Wang’s heart burned at the injustices in America, specifically, her own neighborhood of Washington Heights. While the traffic circle leading into the park was named after Molly Corbin, the park itself was named after the last English governor of New York, Sir William Tryon. He also had dibs on Sir William’s Dog Run, a destination frequented by her friend, who had a dachshund named Beans. Injustice burned in her heart at the marginalization of Molly Corbin’s contribution. Or, as she put it: “Lord Tryon can have the traffic circle and keep the dog run. That park should be named after Molly Corbin.”
Thus, my daughter embarked on her first foray into the world of New York City politics. I know. I was her secretary.
Together, we drafted a letter:
Dear Fill in the Blank:
My name is Alexandra Wang. I am a fourth grade student at PS/IS 187. Here is my problem. Every day after school, I play in the park near my house. It is named after the last English civil governor of New York, William Tryon. This is not right. That park should be named after Molly Corbin, the heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington. Can you please help me change the name of the park?
Alex decided that each letter should be personalized so that the politicians would understand where she was coming from. To Mayor Bloomberg she added:
PS: I think you are a pretty good mayor. Even though you are a Republican, my parents voted for you twice.
She spoke personally to Councilman Robert Jackson at the end of a PTA meeting at PS/IS 187. He assured her that he would write a response to her letter. He never did. Nor did any of the politicians on the all-male list that we had drawn up together.
My daughter raced to the mail box for weeks; then months. The annual Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington came again, and she complained bitterly to the actress playing Molly Corbin that year. Maybe the woman didn’t understand her. She still had a terrible lisp. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
Thish parks dothen’t have a good name.
It thould be named after you.
The Englith lothst. Thish park thould be named for you.
In other words, my child was just not getting anything out of her efforts, except perhaps, a lesson that the government for which Molly Corbin had fought for wasn’t quite working out.
Finally, after more than a year after she had written, a response from Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, arrived. After telling her that they weren’t going to consider renaming the park, he invited her down to the rededication of the statue of George Washington in Union Square. There, he signed her autograph book and took a picture with her. A member of his staff gave her an individual Table Top cherry pie. Things were looking up.
My daughter had learned the lessons of citizen involvement, and the lessons of perseverance. I was determined to make them stick. Whenever my kid failed at something, I’d pipe up with an inspiring lesson from our local American history.
I took my kids to learn to swim at the Dodge Fitness Center at Columbia University. Here, kids on the swimming team gave lessons to earn money for their annual trip to Hawaii. I guess Maui is far enough away for sordid tales of their exploits not to make it back too quickly to New York. When my daughter became frustrated by her inability to perfect her dive, I chimed right in: “What would have happened to the United State of America if George Washington had given up after the Battle of Fort Washington? You just have to keep trying.”
Later, the Columbia kid told me: “You deserve death for that.” I decided to cut it out.
But something must have stuck in my daughter’s heart and mind for all of these years. Maybe it was even the frustration and disappointment that came from her efforts. As an adult, she had a better understanding of the politics behind the Fort Tryon Trust and the Rockefeller money that made the park. “The guy was a closet Anglophile,” she confided to me as we stood watching hummingbirds along the main path of the Heather Garden.
Then one day, she asked me to be her secretary again. She had written a proposal for a United States Post Office stamp honoring Molly Corbin’s actions at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776. In the cover letter, she mentioned she was a resident of Washington Heights. She failed to mention Fort Tryon Park, Sir William’s Dog Run or Corbin Circle. And later, she actually got a letter acknowledging her stamp proposal had been received and was “under discussion.” She was thrilled. It was the letter she had been waiting for since fourth grade.
Now, the leaves in Fort Tryon Park are changing color. Plans for the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington are scheduled for November 17th this year. Little boys will drill with wooden sticks, and little girls will wear mob caps and aprons. They will drink hot apple cider in Fort Tryon Park. But some things have changed.
Molly Corbin’s name has now been added to the roster of the Daughters of the American Revolution. As Molly died childless, nobody had entered her name on the organization’s list. When my daughter expressed her concern, Wilhelmena Kelly, the first woman of color to serve as a DAR Regent amended the list to include Corbin’s name. An effort is under way to have a posthumous Badge of Military Merit awarded to Margaret Corbin. Kathleen Silvia, a graduate of the first coed class at West Point, is spearheading the effort composed of military personnel, historians and politicians. Today, my half-Chinese half Jewish daughter, now twenty-one, continues her campaign for United States Postal Service postage stamp honoring the heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, and the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the Revolution.
So perhaps we can say that Molly Corbin’s heroic actions did result in creating the government she fought for more than two hundred years ago. In fact, maybe Molly Corbin’s actions have resulted in an entirely new revolution for American women that she never dared to dream of. I’d like to think so.