Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Life Happens and You Learn

There are times when I have to acknowledge that my opinion doesn't matter

Oh, I thought it did, that's why I went to the meeting, why I signed the petition, why I got involved in the first place. But I was seeing the issue solely from my personal perspective without any consideration for the bigger picture or the darker history.

To be clear, I have always been on board with the plan to memorialize Maggie Walker, a pioneering black woman who opened an emporium and a bank in Jackson Ward before women even had the right to vote in this country. I've been to the Maggie Walker house on Leigh Street many times for events - tours, talks and films - and usually attend their MLK Day happening.

But when it was announced that a long-overdue statue of Miss Maggie would be put at the triangle at Broad, Adams and Brook Road, necessitating that the magnificent live oak (as in, the kind of oak that doesn't shed its leaves) there would be taken down, I was as indignant as most people I knew.

Why couldn't the sculpture and the tree peacefully co-exist in the planned public plaza?

So, I drew on my youthful activism and got proactive, first passing around a petition to be signed and then adding my signature to the online petition and forwarding the link to everyone I knew. We had to save that tree.

Feeling as if I was already invested in this neighborhood issue, naturally I planned to attend the public meeting to hear from the principals: the city planner, the chosen sculptor, the engineer, the public arts commission crew. I was such an eager beaver about it, I inadvertently RSVP'd twice.

Apparently I wasn't the only one with a burning need to get involved because the response was so great that they moved the meeting to the cavernous auditorium of the main library, where 230-some people showed up.

Let's be clear here: that's over 200 people coming out on an unpleasantly windy and frigid evening to a public meeting about art. The organizers were plainly stunned and thrilled at so many Richmonders caring about a proposed art project.

I found a seat in the second row, next to a guy dressed in green like so many others. Green was, it turned out, the school color for the original Walker High School and former students were there in droves to represent. Ditto many people who had grown up in Jackson Ward.

And while I'm hardly a newcomer to Jackson Ward, having lived in the neighborhood for nearly ten years, I didn't grow up here or even in Richmond. And I certainly know nothing about being the target of racial injustice. But I do care about this fine, old neighborhood, so I felt as entitled as anyone to be part of the process to discuss Richmond's latest public art project.

After meaningless remarks from the mayor, we were given a history of the project and the process so far before the chosen sculptor, Antonio Tobias Mendez (aka Toby), gave us his story. A sculptor for 30 years working in Maryland, he showed us past work, including a memorial to biking legend Major Taylor, the same Major Taylor who'd just last Fall been memorialized in a mural in Jackson Ward.

But his point in showing us his work was that he's done a lot of "portrait sculpture," representational pieces that not only recall the subject but place him or her in context to help the visitor understand their importance. It seemed obvious that he was up to the job of doing Miss Maggie justice.

Next came a civil engineer who explained the constraints of the site and they were numerous. Electric lines, sewer lines, water pipes and, yes, that tree, all factored in. They'd even done shade studies to determine the tree's value for that (minimal - the surrounding buildings are far more valuable for throwing shade).

I have to admit, I was terribly surprised to learn that the live oak had only been planted in 1989. Given its size, it appeared much older.

Toby returned to the podium to talk about his vision for the site. "Tree or no tree, that's up to you guys. I can design this either way," he told the crowd diplomatically. What he did see was a gathering place where people would linger and learn about Walker. What he didn't know was how it might look because, as he put it, he didn't know what his canvas was yet.

From there, it was time to use technology to share demographic information and opinions using keypads. The crowd was split half and half between Jackson Ward residents and non-city residents. Like me, 54% of the crowd had lived in Richmond for more than 20 years.

And, tellingly, 42% said the tree must go while 33% said the tree must stay. That's when things began to get a bit testy. Some questions were phrased in such a way that people felt like it was already presumed that the tree would go and this offended them.

Next came audience question time and I think it's fair to say that no one was holding back. The only problem was, most people weren't asking questions, they were stating their opinions. Or trying to sway the crowd with rhetoric.

"Anyone here know of a statue in Richmond that shares its site with a tree? A.P. Hill? No! Stonewall Jackson? No! End of discussion!"

When a woman asked why the statue couldn't be placed in Abner Clay Park, closer to the Black History Museum, the city planner explained that the site had been chosen because Walker was a bridge-builder who'd tied together the white businesses of Broad Street with the black residents of Jackson Ward by creating a store and bank for those forced to live north of Broad Street.

"She was not a bridge-builder, she was a race woman," a man insisted passionately, explaining that her intention was not to reach out the white community, but to establish places blacks could put their money other than in the pockets of whites.

A woman made a plea for placement in Abner Clay Park, away from the proposed Bus Rapid Transit shelter that will be at Adams. A landlord along Broad bemoaned the negative impact and why local business owners hadn't been consulted about the closure of Brook Road, which will prevent 18-wheelers from being able to go north on Adams, affecting certain restaurants.

The discourse took an odd turn when a woman asked Toby if he was going to have any African-American assistants, in case "life happens to you, Mr. Mendez, and you can't finish?" The sculptor looked abashed. "I'm a very young 52," he said, but no, he wasn't planning on having assistants because it slowed the process.

Then a woman, born in France but a long-time Richmond resident, brought up a point I'd never considered. The concept of having a tree hanging over a statue of a black woman was fraught with too much ugly history, she said. "It wouldn't be a positive note because of the negative connotation of our history."

Wow. I actually felt the hair on my arms stand up as she said it. It would never have occurred to me, being white, but her point was chillingly valid.

I'd walked into the meeting with one opinion and it had been swayed by a viewpoint I couldn't have come up with on my own.

The icing on the cake was when one of Miss Maggie's eight great-grandchildren stood up to speak. The emotion in his voice was evident - at times he almost broke down - as he explained that his mother had died this past Fall, but not before she'd seen the plans.

"My mother loved the site. She wanted the statue there and the tree removed. One of her great-grandchildren has died, but the other seven of us would like to have the tree removed."

Don't get me wrong, I will sorely miss the grandeur of the 26-year old tree that I pass, one way or another, most days of my life as I walk through Jackson Ward. But that's my problem.

The wishes of a roomful of people who grew up nearby, who went to Walker, who have been fighting for this tribute for years, matter far more than my little opinion.

If all goes well, the statue is supposed to be installed by December. No decision has been made about the tree or the placement of the sculpture yet, but the process is inching forward with every meeting, public and private. I thought I knew what I wanted to see happen at the triangle when I walked into that meeting.

I was wrong. What I needed was for wiser heads and, more importantly, those more entitled to make the final decision, to show me a more fitting way to honor Miss Maggie.

The new gateway to Jackson Ward may be without that tree but it will better represent for Richmond as a city. That makes this J-Ward resident proud.


  1. Thank you Karen for the clarification - and for the excellent reporting!

  2. Karen, it takes courage, humility and integrity to change your mind about this issue. All qualities that embody the legacy of Maggie Walker. We're proud you live in Jackson Ward and understand the deeper underpinnings of this issue. It's about POSTERITY, how the future will know Maggie Walker, and your insights honor posterity well. As Mrs. Walker would say: "Have hope, have faith, have courage and carry on." You have her courage. Thanks! Now carry on!