RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Wednesday, a Maryland sculptor revealed his latest design for a statue of Virginia activist Barbara Rose Johns that will soon represent Virginia at the United States Capitol.
The Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol held its ninth public meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 4, at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. A large portion of the meeting was focused on announcing new details about a statue of Virginia civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns that will eventually be installed at the Capitol.
Johns is most known for organizing and leading a two-week student walkout at the all-Black Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville in 1951 when she was just 16 years old. The walkout was focused on equal education opportunities in racially segregated schools and took place three years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned school segregation nationwide.
The bronze statue will ultimately be displayed at the Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol, making Johns one of two representations of Virginia in the collection. It will replace the statue of Robert E. Lee, which was removed in December 2020.
At this meeting, the Commission announced that it had unanimously chosen Maryland sculptor Steven Weitzman of Weitzman Studios as the sculptor for the statue. Weitzman, who is known for his bronze sculptures, has received several prestigious commissions in the past, including a bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass that is permanently installed at the United States Capitol.
“Barbara Rose Johns led an extraordinary act of non-violent civil disobedience which helped to ignite the American Civil Rights Movement,” Weitzman said about his latest commission. “As was the case for numerous Black youths of the Jim Crow era, this brave young woman has not been celebrated in the great halls of America until now.”
Part of Wednesday’s committee discussion was focused on the final appearance of the sculpture. Weitzman was able to showcase a preliminary design that depicts a 16-year-old Johns on the school stage, standing beside a lectern and holding a book in her uplifted hand. One commission member suggested a Virginia history book could be placed in Johns’ hand.
Johns’ siblings, three of which were in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, previously expressed concern about the sculpture being an accurate depiction of Johns’ appearance. However, they said this time around they had more direct input on the final look of the statue — including the chance to meet Weitzman in this studio — and were more confident in the latest design.
Once a design has been approved by the Commission, it will be submitted to the Architect of the Capitol and the Joint Committee on Libraries for final approval.
Both the committee and Johns’ family expressed their hopes that the new statue will inspire a whole new generation that come to see it.
“If you visit Statuary Hall, you find a lot of busts and statues of old white men. You don’t find a lot that appeals to the younger people who visit,” Virginia Senator Louise Lucas said. “But when they see this statue of Barbara Johns, they’re going to see a young woman of high school age who’s leading a revolution in Virginia.”
“I hope that the young people will see that there was a youngster who stood up for what she believed in and it made a difference in the world,” Joan Johns Cobbs, Johns’ younger sister, added.