Monument to honor black Virginians

Published 10:38 am Saturday, July 8, 2017

by Taylor Mills
VCU Capital News Service

One of the hot-button issues in Southern states is the controversy over monuments that celebrate Confederate figures from the Civil War. A new monument in Richmond that commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation might help balance the scales a bit.

A state commission is designing the monument for placement on Brown’s Island, part of the James River Park in downtown Richmond. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission met recently to discuss who might be honored on the Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Monument.

“There is a statue of a newly freed woman holding a baby and a man,” the commission’s chairwoman, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, said in an interview after the meeting. “The base will have four people from pre-Emancipation on one side and four people from post-Emancipation on the other.”

The MLK Memorial Commission has been considering which African-Americans from Virginia should be depicted on the monument. In a previous meeting, the panel selected nine historical figures from before Emancipation for consideration. The focus of Wednesday’s meeting was to select finalists to represent the period from Emancipation to the present.

Public hearings then will be held on the finalists selected by the commission, so people will be able to voice their opinions about who will be on the monument.

The figures that the members discussed at the meeting were categorized by their occupation or field of contribution and also by which region of Virginia they are from.

“It is very difficult to boil down 400 years of African-American history to eight people,” McClellan said during the meeting. “We’d like to, as much as possible, have a good representation of geographical locations, gender balance, period balance and occupation balance.”

The commission reviewed a list of 60 nominees from the post-Reconstruction period. Members of the panel each voted for their five favorites.

The commission members had intended to narrow down the list to 12 finalists, but during the discussions, they had a hard time eliminating prominent figures because they felt all deserved to be honored.

One of the panel’s members, Dr. Lauranett Lee, made an argument for putting Jennie Serepta Dean on the list of finalists. Dean was a former slave who founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in the 1890s.

Another nominee who received a lot of support was Peter Jacob Carter.

“The Eastern Shore always gets forgotten. I’ve seen maps of Virginia that don’t even include it,” said Dr. Gregg Kimball, a member of the MLK Commission. “Peter Jacob Carter has a great story. He’s a United States Colored Troops veteran, a major political player during Reconstruction. He represents a region that we don’t have at all.”

By the end of the meeting, the commission had chosen 21 post-Emancipation finalists to move forward to the public hearings, along with the nine pre-Emancipation finalists.

The meeting concluded after discussing possible dates and locations for the public hearings. The MLK Commission intends to release the list of finalists and dates for the public hearings after consulting with members unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting.