Eliza asked her mother, “Where’s Rosa Parks?”
In January of 2002, Eliza’s investigation of the grassy rolling hills of the grounds of Capitol Square, which had recently become her yard, had aroused her curiosity.
The youngest daughter of Virginia’s 69th governor, Mark Warner, had noticed that among the six statues of people around what would be her home for the next four years, not only were there none honoring a female, there were none remembering the heroines/heroes of the Civil Rights Era.
“It started me thinking,” said Lisa Collis, Eliza’s mother and then Virginia’s First Lady.
Collis’ thinking eventually led her to consult with people who might help fill in the gap in Virginia’s history her daughter had innocently discovered in the statuary of Capitol Square.
On Monday a new monument for Capitol Square will be dedicated. The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, a sculpture by Stanley Bleifeld, will commemorate a turning point in history -- a 1951 student demonstration which was led by a 16-year-old girl named Barbara Johns.
To protest the outrageously deplorable conditions in which they found themselves at Robert R. Moton, an all-black school in Prince Edward County, the students staged a “walk-out.” Although it was change they were seeking, those brave students had no way to know where their peaceful demonstration’s walk would lead. They took those first steps not knowing that much of the worst violence of the Civil Rights Era was still to come.
Eventually, those students’ cause was taken up by civil rights attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson. The Moton case was folded into four other similar cases to be argued before the Supreme Court as one. The result: The 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ended the days in which separate-but-equal could be used as the underpinning for segregation in public schools.
During 2003 Collis held informal discussions with various people to explore the possibility of a creating a memorial to key civil rights heroes in Virginia’s history, how to raise the money, possible subjects, etc. In 2004 she put together an exploratory group that included: Chief Justice Leroy Hassell; Secretary of Administration Sandra Bowen; Sen. Henry Marsh; Del. Preston Bryant; Clarence Dunnaville; Mrs. C. Howell; Mrs. Robby Thompson; Mrs. Judy Anderson.
In January of 2005, Del. Bryant introduced a resolution in the House of Delegates calling for the establishment of a commission devoted to creating a memorial that would pay tribute in some way to Virginians who played significant roles during the fight for equal rights for all, known as the Civil Rights Era. His resolution was approved and Gov. Warner issued an executive order that established the Civil Rights Memorial Commission
When the Commission held its first meeting it was guided by an expert in the field, Joe Seipel (longtime chairman of VCU’s sculpture department, before taking a job in the university’s administration), to contact four particular sculptors to see if they would submit concept drawings. Of the three artists who complied, Stanley Bleifeld was selected.
Collis and Bleifeld visited the Robert R. Moton Museum in Farmville to see the site, look over the museum’s archives, and meet with some of the former Moton students, to get a firsthand perspective of the events the sculptor sought to represent.
In October 2005 the Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial Foundation was established to raise the funds and manage the overall project. The fundraising goal was set at $2.6 million.
In November of 2006 the Commission approved of the final Bleifeld design with its 18 life-sized figures around a granite base and what inscriptions would appear on the memorial itself. Trips to Italy, where the individual figures were cast in bronze, ensued.
On July 21, 2008, at 10:30 a.m., millions of eyes -- not just in Richmond, but all over the world -- will be focused on Virginia’s Capitol Square. Among other things, they will see what good can flow from a parent trying to respond properly to a child’s question. The event will be the official unveiling of Bleifeld’s art, the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. It honors the heroism of students, everyday people and famous civil rights attorneys -- Virginians who made their world a better place.
Furthermore, this time the process was done right. So don’t expect a lot of howling about the art being bad, or how the location is wrong, or any of that malarkey. No doubt, some will find fault with it. But this thing was put together by careful people who knew it had to be done right.
No doubt, the fact that Richmond was once the seat of the Confederate government will be mentioned in all the news reports. We're used to that being a part of any story about Richmond. This time it will be most appropriate.
While this one piece of sculpture hardly balances out the number monuments to the Lost Cause standing in Richmond, it does a beautiful job of representing how much has changed in this city since the last general was put atop a pedestal on Monument Ave.
The Members of the Civil Rights Memorial Commission are as follows:
Governor Timothy M. Kaine, Chair.
Lisa Collis, former First Lady of Virginia.
Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court.
Judith C. Anderson, former deputy secretary of the commonwealth.
Dr. Woody Holton, professor of history at the University of Richmond.
Rita O. Moseley, a 25-year employee with Prince Edward County High School.
Bill Bolling, Lieutenant Governor.
William J. Howell, Speaker of the House of Delegates.
Thomas K. Norment, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules.
Jennifer McClellan, Delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates.
-- Considerable help with the information presented in the piece was provided by Lou Arnatt Kadiri, the Foundation's Executive Director; The image is from the Commonwealth of Virginia;