by Leah Small
Descendants of Maggie Walker insist that the statue planned in her honor mustn't be overshadowed by a towering oak, according to her great-grandson.
Johnny Mickens says that it was the dying wish of his mother, Elizabeth Walker, that a statue of Maggie Walker be placed in the triangular intersection of Brook Road and Adams and Broad streets, and that the tree at its center be removed.
Mickens was one of several speakers at a public hearing held by the city Tuesday, an early step in shaping the look of the statue and the memorial plaza planned for the surrounding intersection.
“[Elizabeth Walker] loved the placement of it at Adams, Brook and Broad and grew up three blocks from there,” he said. “She wanted the statue there and the tree removed. Now there are seven great-grandchildren. One of the eight is deceased and I’m speaking for all when I say we would like to see the tree removed.”
A few hundred people packed the Richmond Public Library auditorium, which was chosen as the location after a previous space proved too small because of overwhelming interest.
But instead of focusing the discussion on design elements of the statue, speakers turned to issues of race, and the importance of honoring Walker or sparing the oak. Some said that the statue instead should be located in Abner Clay Park to protect the tree and to be close to the Maggie L. Walker museum. Others were concerned about the tree diminishing Walker and said that placing her under the tree gave the impression of lynching.
Sculptor Toby Mendez, commissioned by the city to sculpt Walker, gave a rough idea about what the plaza could look like. He said that he's open to designing the statue in a plaza with or without the tree. Mendez said that if the tree stays, he wouldn’t place it under the tree, but somewhere off to the side.
“I think if we design this with or without the tree,” he said, “folks are going to first be looking at Maggie Walker -- I’ll make sure of that.”
The artist also wants the statue to be easily accessible and aims to portray Walker as a woman of the people, who is respected and not “deified” with a statue on too high a pedestal.
City officials polled those in attendance about the tree issue. In all, a third responded that they wanted the statue to stand without the tree, in a sitting or gathering space. Respondents answered four questions about the look of the plaza -- two options considered a space with the tree, and two without. Respondents said that they favored a portrayal of a Walker in her 40s, at the height of her career.
City planners also said that they had the option of adding parking on Adams, because a section of Brook Road may be closed to accommodate the memorial plaza.