Changing the landscape
10/18/2019, 6 a.m.
We were delighted with the unveiling and dedication this week of “Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument” in Capitol Square.
Roughly 10 years in the making, the monument features life-size bronze statues of seven women whose contributions have helped shape the Commonwealth during the past 400 years. It also includes a Wall of Honor inscribed with the names of 230 notable women.
While the Women’s Monument Commission is still raising money to complete the installation — five additional bronze statues, including ones of Richmond businesswoman Maggie L. Walker and trailblazing physician Dr. Sarah Garland Jones, are to be added — we are encouraged by the very visible changes in Capitol Square.
The Capitol, located in the heart of Downtown, is not only the seat of government in Virginia. It also is a historic landmark, with exhibits, paintings and photos within the building and the statuary within and on the surrounding Capitol grounds telling the story of who we are as Virginians and the highlights — and lowlights — of our history.
But since the 1850s when the cornerstone of the equestrian statue of Virginian George Washington was laid in this public square, visitors would come away thinking that only white men played a pivotal role in shaping our Commonwealth.
Apparently, it took a young girl, Eliza Warner, the youngest daughter of then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, to point out this myopic and exclusionary practice. On a walk in January 2002 outside her new home at the Executive Mansion in Capitol Square, Eliza reportedly looked at the statues of all the men and asked her mother, “Where is Rosa Parks?”
The youngster realized there were no statues honoring women and none from the Civil Rights Movement.
Nor, we point out, were there any statues honoring people of color.
It got her mother, First Lady Lisa Collis, the wife of new Gov. Warner, thinking. Ms. Collis began brainstorming with others about how to fill that gap.
We find it both fascinating and telling that that important moment, sparked by the wisdom of a child, eventually led to the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial being placed on Capitol Square in 2008. That monument features young civil rights activist Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old who led a student walkout at the Robert Russa Moton School in Prince Edward County in 1951 to protest deplorable conditions stemming from the lack of resources being put into her all-black public school. A resulting lawsuit became part of the famous U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 outlawing racially separate and unequal public schools in the nation. NAACP lawyers in the case, Richmond’s Oliver W. Hill Sr. and Spottswood W. Robinson III, also are depicted on the monument.
We are pleased that efforts to tell a more complete story of Virginia at Capitol Square didn’t end there. In April 2018, “Mantle,” a monument honoring Virginia’s first inhabitants, Native Americans, was unveiled on Capitol Square.
On Monday, Virginia took another step forward with “Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument.” Of the seven bronze statues unveiled, three are of women of color — pioneering educator Virginia Randolph of Henrico County, who developed a nationally recognized approach to vocational learning; Elizabeth Keckly of Dinwiddie, an enslaved woman who bought her freedom as a dress designer, including for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House, and who organized a relief program for freed slaves and black soldiers during the Civil War; and Cockacoeske, the first female chief of the Pamunkey Indians who united tribes, ended the war with the English through the Treaty of 1677 and accepted a reservation for the Pamunkey.