How efforts to get a statue honoring black soldiers crumbled


This bronze sculpture of was done by Ed Dwight and slated for Constitution Gardens on the National Mall. (COURTESY OF ED DWIGHT)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 25, 2011

Ed Dwight isn’t here in Washington for the big event.

And I always thought he would be, at the center of a celebration.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

More than a decade ago, he created a stunning bronze sculpture that would be placed on the Mall, one of the last two memorials authorized before the space was to be closed to any new memorials, forever, in 2003.

His design was stamped on a commemorative coin by the U.S. Mint in 1998, General Motors gave the project $1.5 million, and the artwork was well on its way to being enlarged and erected near the Lincoln Memorial.

At the time, the other project that had been given the green light for the Mall — the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — was in its infancy. It had no artist, no coin and not that much money.

But Dwight believed that both works would be made and that they would be like “three legs of a stool” — the African American patriots who fought for the nation, the president who freed them, then the civil rights leader who worked for their equality — that would tell the story of black Americans.

Dwight, who had made history once before as the NASA training program’s first African American astronaut, was prepared to make history again, sculpting the first memorial on the nation’s front yard in honor of black Americans.

And then, pfft. It all went kaput.

The foundation created two decades ago and supported by President Ronald Reagan to honor the heroics of about 5,000 black Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War began to bicker, then the members split, and, eventually, it all imploded.

Its founder, Maurice Barboza, went on to create his own foundation, hired his own artist and is working toward getting a similar memorial in another part of the Mall area.

“The King memorial will tell only a small part of the long saga. Without showing Americans where the dreams originated or how the churches and self-help groups formed by the Revolutionary War generation came to form the backbone of the civil rights movement, we miss the so-much-larger and inspiring story,” Barboza told me.

The time of death for the original memorial was midnight on Oct. 26, 2005, when the last application for an extension to allow construction on the Mall wasn’t filed. The president of the Black Patriots Foundation at the time, Rhonda Roberson, kept telling me she would find a way to make it work. But she didn’t file the application, and after the last chance to make the memorial tick-tocked past, the Web site for the project went dark, the phones were disconnected and Roberson stopped answering calls.

The death of this majestic memorial is “a pain in my heart” for Wayne Smith, who was on the board of the memorial foundation and was the one who got the coin minted.

He watched, aghast, as the foundation kept spiraling the costs upward, projecting fundraising goals that seemed improbable.

Smith found a way for Dwight to erect the sculpture for $1 million, even less than the huge grant from General Motors. But by then, it was too late. The foundation was cratering and the idea was batted away.

What a waste.

Dwight, whose statue of Alex Haley at Annapolis City Dock is a local landmark and memorial to A. Philip Randolph in Union Station is underappreciated, stood by with little he could do.

Is he bitter?

“It was the mishandling of money and responsibilities, rather than looking at this thing as a wonderful opportunity to have something like this on the Mall,” he said.

“But I have so much work now, I’m keeping busy,” he graciously told me this week from his studio in Denver. Dwight has created more than 130 works of art commemorating African Americans across the country.

But the biggie — the Mall — still eludes him.

He’s a better person than I. If I were Dwight, I’d be fuming.

This week, as officials battle Hurricane Irene for the spotlight, which has postponed the long-awaited dedication, the sculptor has been vocal on other issues.

He was part of the committee to select the artist for the King memorial.

The Chinese artist who was selected, Lei Yixin, was “not my first choice,” Dwight told me.

Mostly, he objected for artistic reasons.

“In Washington, Lincoln looks like Lincoln, Jefferson looks like Jefferson and Roosevelt looks exactly like Roosevelt. Why the devil can’t the most important figure in our times look like Dr. King?” he said.

It’s a delicate thing, to disparage a memorial whose time has come.

There is absolutely no doubt that King belongs on the Mall.

But I do have to agree with some of the artistic critics. I get homesick for the Eastern Bloc when I look at it, getting a much stronger Lenin vibe than Alabama feel.

The sculpture that Dwight created was intended to be a sprawling 90-foot-long story of black American families and their journey from enslavement, to fighting alongside white revolutionaries, to a final scene where they look to President Abraham Lincoln for hope.

Not only would it have been a wonderful aesthetic addition to the Constitution Gardens part of the Mall, but it tells a little-known story of the unbelievable hope and fortitude of black Americans, as well as their place in the founding of our country. Imagine having enough faith in the idea of America to fight alongside the very people who enslave you.

Breathtaking.

It took Harry E. Johnson Sr., chief executive of the foundation that built the King memorial, 14 years to get it made. I wonder if he’s ready to take on a new project.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com

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