The oppressive heat spell didn’t discourage an upbeat and anticipatory crowd from filling the intersection of Broad Street, Adams Street and Brook Road on July 15. Spectators flapping commemorative fans greeted each other as if enjoying a school or family reunion. But the assembled were there to dedicate the Maggie Lena Walker Memorial, an intimate downtown plaza, and for the unveiling of its centerpiece, a 10-foot bronze statue of a woman who was born to a former slave and became a trailblazing civil rights leader, bank founder, publisher, entrepreneur and educator.
Walker (1864-1934) is also perhaps the most iconic and inspirational figure in Richmond’s storied history. Since the 1970s, her Jackson Ward home on West Leigh Street has been a destination maintained by the National Park Service, a poignant and must-see stop. Just a few blocks west of there, the governor’s school displays out front a bronze bust of its famous namesake. And now Walker’s likeness reigns over a prominent downtown thoroughfare in the once-black neighborhood where she reared a family, started a business and worked so effectively on behalf of so many.
Walker is the first woman to be honored among the city’s dozen or so sculpted outdoor monuments saluting individual Richmonders. An aluminum image of a tap-dancing Bill “Bojangles” Robinson has been at the intersection of Adams and Leigh streets, and Chamberlayne Parkway since 1973. More recently, likenesses have been erected of E. Claiborne Robins, a pharmaceutical executive whose philanthropy was transformational for the University of Richmond, and of Henry Hibbs, founding provost of Richmond Professional Institute, the forerunner of Virginia Commonwealth University. Arthur Ashe, the renowned tennis player, raises his racket on Monument Avenue. And the visages of two inestimable Richmond lawyers, Oliver Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III, are depicted in bronze on the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square.
Now, in Jackson Ward, Maggie Walker joins this sculpted elite.
So how is she presented for perpetuity? Dignified, forthright and visionary are words that came to mind as I viewed the upright, pillarlike work by sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez on the day of the unveiling. Walker wears a conservative dress with a high neck and long skirt. Her right hand clutches the strand of beads around her neck, a bank book is in her left hand, and she gazes across Broad Street contemplatively.
At first glance the standing figure appears motionless — frozen, even. But soon you notice that her right foot protrudes from under her skirt as if she is stepping forward, the next thoughtful move, so to speak, as she continues her broad agenda of community building — or wealth building in today’s parlance. With the extended foot Mendez takes a cue from the Statue of Liberty. In 1886 the French artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi sculpted his torch-carrying lady in full stride, movement that can only be seen when the colossal work is viewed from the rear. In that spirit, Mendez effectively places his figure of Walker as far back as possible on the 4-foot high drum that supports the work. The implied negative ground space suggests that she is striding ahead.
Subtle delights are the three, low-relief bronze panels placed below Walker’s figure that are embedded in the statue’s rounded base. Each frieze tells a supporting story: Walker’s role as a banker, entrepreneur and educator of young people, respectively. It’s unfortunate that these weren’t displayed someplace higher in the memorial park and integrated with the overall design of the plaza.
If Mendez makes his intentions clear in depicting his subject, the same can’t be said of the 10 black marble, coffinlike benches that form an arc behind the statue. On a side of each bench one from a list of Walker’s considerable life achievements is etched. But the serif typeface is disproportionately large, looks clunky and makes for a choppy narrative flow. Moving one to another fact is akin to sorting note cards when composing a term paper. And if folks are sitting on the benches, their legs block the words. Other information about Walker we’re meant to know is inscribed in the plaza pavement and flows spirallike from the statue. Overall, the graphics are scattered and would have been more communicative if all the printed information was in one place.
The memorial’s landscape architect, VHB of Boston, breaks up the interesting triangular space nicely around the statue. The combination of paving materials — red brick and granite — is as attractive as it is solid. And the cobblestones that delineate the former Brook Road street bed are an important trade-off for the loss of a distinctive stretch of 18th century roadway. The mix of plantings, especially in a growing season or two, should soften the plaza’s otherwise hard edges. A restaurant opening onto the sidewalk has also appropriated some sidewalk for cafe items — tables, chairs and red umbrellas.
It took an extended and sometimes contentious path to get this memorial built. But in the end, the public-art process worked. Maggie Walker’s bronze presence, and the achievements and humanity it symbolizes, brings immediate grace to a hard-edged city crossroads. And when the three shade trees grow large enough to provide a leafy canopy, this should become a much-needed and beloved oasis. S