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The way this Virginia Civil Rights icon will soon be honored in the U.S. Capitol

Posted at 6:17 PM, Jan 04, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- The commission leading efforts to place a statue of Civil Rights icon Barbara Rose Johns as one of two representing Virginia at the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall announced the sculptor who would design and build the statue Wednesday.

The Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol said it had picked Maryland-based sculptor Steven Weitzman, whose numerous sculptures include one already in the Capitol of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

"His obvious passion for this project and his articulation of Barbara John’s legacy evoked an emotional response from the Commission. After his moving presentation, the decision to offer this commission to Weitzman was quickly and easily reached,” said Commission Chair State Sen. L. Louise Lucas, who added she felt a mix of emotions on reaching this stage of the process. "I feel energized, I feel excited, I feel tearful because it's been such a long time coming."

This work began in 2020 when Democrats, in control of the General Assembly and Governor's mansion, voted to have Johns replace Confederate General Robert E. Lee as one of Virginia's two representatives in Statuary Hall. Each state is allowed two statues and for over the past century, it was President George Washington and Lee for Virginia.

The Lee statue was removed at the end of 2020 and the statue now stands in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture's "Lost Cause" exhibit.

Johns was selected for her role as a then-16-year-old leading a student walkout in 1951 to protest conditions at the all-Black Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia.

Along with being formally introduced, Weitzman presented a small version of his proposed sculpture of Johns to the commission and members of Johns' family, which will eventually stand close to 11 feet high.

"I'm just deeply grateful to be here and to have been chosen to create this monumental, in so many ways, a piece that is representative of it a most heroic person," said Weitzman.

The sculpture is of a teenage Johns addressing the imaginary group of students walking beside a lectern holding a blank book aloft in her right hand. Underneath the floorboards of the stage are books by African-American authors.

"I like the fact that she's moving past the lectern moving towards the audience, making her point, the point that has needed to be made for hundreds of years," said Weitzman.

Weitzman said while this was the initial idea, he could go along with whatever the commission and Johns's family decided to do, the commission spent several hours discussing potential changes to the statue including making the book Johns is holding to say "The History of Virginia".

"Because, that would show what Virginia has all been all about -- from Reconstruction to Massive [Resistance] and all of the things, all the Confederate monuments, the Lost Cause," said Lucas. "What that would do, it would keep people from trying to erase or whitewash the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Weitzman added he would rely on the family to help get the facial features of Johns right since there are only a few photos of her at that age.

The Johns family expressed gratitude at the inclusion of the process, noting it was not the case in other public statues and paintings of their sister and they did not feel the end products captured her likeness.

"At the United States Capitol, I would love for my parents to be able to walk in and look at that statue, say 'That's my daughter.' I would love for my brothers and sister and I to be able to go in and say, 'That's my sister.'," said Johns' brother Robert Johns.

Johns' sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, who was present during the school walkout added getting to this point was "momentous".

"I feel that this is an important moment," said Johns Cobbs. "I believe that we all come to fruition. At first, I wondered whether it would ever happen, but now it will."

She added that while what the finished product will look like is still in the works -- the family already knows what message they want it to send.

"I hope that young people will see that there is a youngster that stood up for what she believed them," said Johns Cobbs. "And it made a difference in the world."

The commission said there are still many unknowns and steps in the process to give a firm date for when the statue could be unveiled at Statuary Hall but said the earliest it could be is sometime in 2024.

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